One dad’s parenting resolutions for 2017, using baby steps
It’s the season where many of us make resolutions to guide our efforts in the coming year. As a parent and a middle school teacher, I’ve been doing this as well.
Most of what I want to accomplish as a father comes down to parenting for the long-term, building skills and traits that will endure well after my day-to-day influence has faded. As my oldest children have gone to college, this has been impressed repeatedly on my mind.
However, as with all resolutions, it’s easy to overpromise and under deliver. I’ve found in the past that having a few simple goals with associated steps can make all the difference. So, here are my resolutions and baby-steps to get there.
I will allow my kids to struggle and even fail. This is perhaps one of the hardest challenges of parenting. Everyone understands, and most agree, with this principle in theory. But when our children encounter honest-to-goodness struggles, we are hard-wired to jump in and protect them. However, struggles are the way a child learns to be an adult eventually, this is how they grow.
In addition to struggling with this as a parent, I see the other side all the time as a teacher. I truly can’t count the number of times I’ve received an email saying something such as, “I really believe that kids need to struggle, BUT …” followed by an explanation of why this time is different, why this struggle is unfair or beyond the pale. This is somewhat like saying, “I believe in exercise, but don’t want my child to perspire, get sore, or get their heart-rate up.”
Unfortunately, there are not usually benign, loving-but-firm, Mary Poppins sort of challenges that will help children grow in a comfortable way. The obstacles they need to develop into self-sufficient, functional adults are usually going to be uncomfortable.
As I find myself struggling with the parental impulse to intervene, I’ve come up with a small test for myself. My baby-step this year will be applying this test before I respond.
One: Is there imminent physical danger? If so, intervene.
Two: Is there imminent and genuine long-term emotional danger (e.g. from being bullied)? If so, intervene.
Three: Will there be serious long-term consequences? If not, don’t intervene.
Four: Is it frustrating, unfair, unpleasant, irritating or otherwise a raw deal? If so, don’t intervene.
Five: Am I annoyed at the teacher, coach, or other authority figure? If so, generally don’t intervene.
The long-term benefit to a child of grappling with a real problem almost always exceeds the short-term value of having the problem solved by the parent.
Related to item one, I will spend more time coaching my children, helping them develop their own ideas and strategies and solutions. When my oldest children went to college, I learned that I simply cannot intervene their way to happiness or success. My lasting influence lies in how well I taught them to respond to difficulty, how well I coached them as they dealt with disappointment. I am working on applying this principle with my younger kids in a more conscious way. Baby step: I will form the habit of replying to problems by expressing empathy, then saying, “What do you think you can do about this?”
I will make my children do chores. I know; I really do. Having one’s children work around the house means vastly more work — and often vexation — for the parent. But it’s worth it. There’s been a lot of buzz in the last few years about studies supporting the notion that doing regular chores had numerous developmental benefits (see, for example, this study about the significance of chores). Of course the idea that chores are beneficial doesn’t really need a study; it’s really quite intuitive. This is another place where I think we generally accept the theory, but the execution is difficult. My baby-step is to make sure I ask them to do something every day. We’ll build on that.
I will allow my children to have unstructured time and even to be bored. It isn’t news that many children are over-programmed, bouncing like superballs from one adult-led activity to another. The time they have to play is vanishing, leaving little time for the work we have traditionally associated with childhood: play. It is play that develops many of the skills we collectively value, like imagination, teamwork, listening, resilience and so on. Recently, we’ve been hearing about the value of boredom for children. My baby-steps here are to impose strict limits on electronics, make sure that we only do one extra-curricular activity a season, and refuse to fix boredom.
I will model respect and empathy. I am determined that my children will not hear me speak ill of another human, even — especially — those with whom I disagree. To be honest, I have a long way to go. So, I’m going to take a few baby-steps. To begin, using proper titles: President, Senator, Governor, Secretary, etc. I’ve found that some old-school formality helps keep my tone temperate and restrained. I am going to try to presume that people I encounter are acting in good faith. And I am going to work to help my children understand different viewpoints on various issues, and why someone may see something differently.