I thought I'd take a crack at my first "soft launch" blogging with a reprise of an article I wrote for Washington Parent magazine more than a decade ago when my son Sammy was 10. That was back when I was still in the messy thick of daily, hands-on parenting (as opposed to today's messy thick of trying for less frequent, hands-off parenting of a college student). I was an imperfect parent then and I'm still an imperfect parent now...just in an older, wiser way, of course.
No one is perfect, and we parents are no exception. So don't even try to be perfect. Cut yourself some slack. Just try to be good enough, and know that your little flowers will blossom even with the occasional dry day, cloudy week, or nick with the lawnmower. You're both more resilient than you think. Give these ten resolutions a try, but don’t worry, you’re not being graded.
1. FIRST THINGS FIRST. Steven Covey wasn't the first wise person to tell us this, but it was the first time many of us really got it. For me it was that story he tells about trying to put rocks into a glass jar. If you put all the gravel and the little rocks in first, you may find you can't fit the big rocks in at the end. So put in the big rocks first. For me this means human relations come first. Not schedules, not your favorite show on TV, not the house or yardwork that hasn't been done. There's always time for a kind word and personal attention and presence to your children. If you think there's not, you're not putting the big rocks first. You'll just make yourself and your children crazy rushing all the time--so slow down to the speed of love.
2. YOU FIRST! Just as financial planners recommend you "pay yourself first" to put part of each paycheck aside for savings, so you should "schedule yourself first." Whether it's trips to the gym or your writing group, lunch with a girlfriend or a poker game with the guys, it's not just okay, it's a must that you plan time for yourself, or you may never get it! I will never forget what my friend Shelley said to me one frazzled time when I didn't feel like a "good enough" mom. (She also brought me chocolate chip cookies, a cure-all even for imperfect parenting.) "It's like what the flight attendants tell you before you take off--'parents, place your own oxygen mask on first before assisting your child.'" Well, being a mom is just like that, she said: "you've got to put on your own oxygen mask first" by taking care of yourself so you can take care of your kids.
3. MIND YOUR MANNERS. Leave the efficiency expert, superwoman/superman, manager at work. Your relations at home should reflect the value system of your family, not a business. Your interaction and communications should be governed by kindness and compassion and mutual respect, not hierarchy, not flow-charts, not precise schedules on electronic planners. Authors Don and Jean Ellium call this “FamilyMind.” So leave “WorkMind” at the office and use your commute home (or, if you’re like me, down the stairs from your home office) to slip into “FamilyMind” instead.
4. HUMOR ME. You know what I mean here, right? Sometimes you've just got to laugh or you'll cry. Humor is hands down the best parenting tool we have at our disposal. So use it liberally and teach your kids to laugh along with you. A sense of humor and perspective is also one of the most valuable life skills we can pass along to them.
5. TIME OUT. Time outs are good for your kids and for you. For you, it's important to step back from an explosive situation. Nothing like a good cry, a good scream (preferably in a closet out of your child's hearing), a good headful of cold air outside the door, a good vicious pillow fluffing, or just plain a few seconds to count to ten, or twenty, for bad vibes to dissipate or problems to shrink to size. Give your kids the space for a time out when needed, and let them know sometimes you need one too.
6. DON'T SWEAT THE SMALL STUFF. Yeah, it's all small stuff, but boy can it build up fast! Take a deep breath and focus on the one problem that's right in front of you now. Don't universalize ("you never pick up your room). Putting yourself in your child's shoes can also show you why something that means one thing to you may mean something altogether different (or nothing at all) to them. Adjust your approach accordingly.
7. KNOW "NO" IS NOT A FOUR LETTER WORD. Repeat after me: "Limits are good. Limits are good." Now, I have to tell you, I am notoriously bad at this limits business, but even I've got to admit, it really works. Maybe it was growing up in the Age of Aquarius, but for ages I really believed that my job was to give my child anything he wanted and let him do anything he pleased as long as he wasn't hurting anyone. (Okay, so laugh at me.) Except what he wants isn't the point. I'm the parent, so at least for a few more years, I've got to decide what he needs, and make sure he gets it, or at least has opportunities to. Just as you are not the center of the universe, neither is your child. And a family isn't quite a democracy. More like a benevolent dictatorship. Listen to your kids, respect your kids, love your kids, but remember you're the grown-up (and don't abuse the privilege). Even animal parents give their young lessons before they just let them go tumbling out of the nest, or lurching out of the cave or stable! Our kids need to learn what there is in the world, what they need and want, how to get it, and who out there is going to share it with them--hopefully, peacefully.
8. WALK THE WALK. I remember how good it felt to walk my baby around the neighborhood. Just because our darlings are no longer in strollers doesn't mean we can't take walks together. It's good exercise and a bad-mood buster for both adults and kids. A family walk can be a nice ritual after dinner, or on a weekend morning after breakfast. Or maybe it's a time for just mother and son or father and daughter to get some time together away from the rest of the gang. It's a time for talking and laughing, for appreciating nature in your neighborhood or the rhythm of the city streets. Even if your child is reluctant at first, see if he or she doesn't open up in the silence of the walk--if not, then share the silence in a walking meditation!
9. LISTEN TO YOURSELF. Wow, that usually stops me in my tracks if I'm on a tear, nagging, or wrangling back and forth on something. Nine times out of ten in an unproductive dispute I'm sounding like a truculent nine-year old myself, whining with the best of them. A calm, firm response, that most effective but elusive of parenting approaches, always gets you further. Kids haven't got the emotional intelligence tools yet to apply rational thinking and compassion to an explosive situation, but you do! So you may snap now and then. Parents aren't perfect, remember? Keep trying.
10. GIVE THANKS. What goes around comes around, so say "thank you" to your own parents, whether they're alive or dead. Goodness knows children are a bunch of ingrates, however loveable. But don't bother keeping score, because however much you give they're going to make you think it's not enough. Just rearranged your schedule to accommodate their game? Just spent your bonus money on clothes for them? Just stayed up half the night baking brownies for a PTA fundraiser or spent your only day off helping with a science project? Doesn't count. Nope. "But Mom, but Dad, I wanna…" will always be the next words out of their mouths. But that's just how it is, and now that you know how hard it is, and how much of themselves your parents gave to you, say "Thank you." You can cross your fingers some day your adult children will be thanking you--but don't hold your breath, and love them today anyway.