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Our Parenting Principles in 2022

In thinking about how to be the best parents possible, the following principles have been at the top of my mind in recent years. This list is neither exhaustive nor universal: there are many, many other useful parenting principles, but these are the ones our family needs most.

Loving interactions

There are many schools of thought when it comes to parenting. Some think they must harden their children to prepare them for the rough world outside. Others simply expect a lot and only praise their children when they perform.

I’ve come to the conclusion that what our children need most from us is love. It feels silly to write it like that, obvious as it is, but it is surprisingly easy to forget in the daily grind, especially for an impatient parent like me. So I have to remind myself to make my interactions as loving as possible.

Note that none of the principles below works all the time in all situations. They are just strategies to reduce the number of stressful or harmful interactions and provide for a better environment for the children and for ourselves.

#1 - Do it from a place of love

Every time I feel annoyed and want to lash out, I ask myself: What is the most loving way of fixing this now? There is almost always an alternative to being harsh or dismissive, or to putting pressure because of time or importance. It’s a good exercise to stop for a second and reflect on what the child needs at that moment, what it is trying to say or show, or whether I’m just asking too much of them. Then, it’s surprisingly easy to find a loving response that both respects the child and my own needs and agenda.

Stop reading now and put your shoes on, you’re going to be late for school again!
Hey buddy, I realize it’s always a bit hectic in the morning. I don’t really want to go to work, either. You know what? Let’s put the sneakers on today and go “super speed” on our way to kindergarten, OK?

#2 - 10 minutes of quality time everyday

The greatest gift we can give our children is spending time with them. It’s difficult in the daily routine, though, and we fail at this one quite a bit. In the morning, there is no time because everyone has to get ready. In the evening, while the children play, we cook and try to get things in order. It’s easy to go through the day without making any sort of quality time. But really, 10 minutes shouldn’t be that hard. So I find it useful to look for opportunities throughout the morning and afternoon. Sometimes, I’ll just join my daughter in bed for a nice, long hug in the morning. Or I’ll sit down with my son for 10 minutes to just play along to whatever he’s playing.

#3 - 1 instruction, 1 touch, 5 breaths

It’s very easy to just shout instructions from the kitchen or from the bathroom. I can vividly remember how my mother would do just that and how I would happily ignore her, busy as I was with really, really important things (most likely involving matchbox cars or my computer). My children, like most children, can get so engrossed in their activities that I suspect they literally don’t hear me. Adding a gentle touch makes it clear I’m talking to them.

And then I take five breaths before repeating the instruction. Children aren’t as quick as adults to switch away from whatever it is they are doing. They need time to let their current activity go. I’m often surprised that they get up and come with me even before I’ve counted my fifth breath (I do breathe slowly, though).

#4 - Only criticise behaviour

We often reflexively use words that reject the entire person, when we really only object to a particular behaviour. I constantly have to remind myself to phrase my criticism specifically for the behaviour I disapprove of. Sometimes, it requires me to take a second to formulate my response in my head first.

You’re messy!
You’re making a mess!

You always shout!
You’re shouting at me, I don’t want that.

Be quiet!
I can’t listen right now, I’m in the middle of something. Come back later!

#5 - Would I expect this of a horse?

This will sound strange, but I recently started occasionally thinking of my children as horses. It occurred to me that we humans would probably show more understanding towards horses than towards our own children. I wouldn’t expect a horse to do something when it’s obviously in the wrong state of mind, nor to do anything that’s clearly beyond its abilities, like understanding integer division or being on time. Yet I sometimes expect my children to display emotional or cognitive abilities they do not yet possess. I also often expect them to function at times when I myself, ironically, feel drained and exhausted, like at the end of the day. “Would I expect this of a horse?” is a useful, tongue-in-cheek way to double-check my expectations and perhaps tone them down a bit.

Strong emotions

Emotions can get very strong, very quickly. Whether through an argument or because someone hurt themselves (or both!), we make so many mistakes when faced with such strong emotions that the second half of this list is focused on how to react when faced with them.

#6 - Empathy, not sympathy

When emotions run high with the children, things work out best when we manage to remain calm and collected. It’s the difference between empathy, understanding what the child is feeling, and sympathy, feeling what the child is feeling. Sympathy is unhelpful when it sucks us into the children’s emotional vortex and makes us equally angry and loud. I try to remind myself that they’re just expressing that the situation isn’t working for them and that it’s not personal, even though it sometimes seems directed at me.

#7 - Contain the emotions before solving the problem

Often times, strong emotions are the result of some unfortunate behaviour on the child’s part. It’s so tempting to start talking about what went wrong. However, a child is simply not receptive when angry or sad. Children feel their emotions much more strongly than us. We’ve been numbed by years and years of dealing with pain, frustration and antagonism, but children experience their emotions in all their might and get completely carried away by them. It is utterly unproductive to try to have a conversation, let alone a difficult one that involves criticism, in such a state of mind. The only thing to do, no matter how urgently we want to talk about it, it so wait it out or even console the child. We’re most successful when we postpone the conversation to a calmer moment, like during dinner or before going to bed.

#8 - Pick your battles

We feel tremendous pressure as parents. Homework, cleanliness, hygiene, social interactions, punctuality, eating habits, etc.: there are so many areas where we feel the need to uphold socially acceptable standards, even in the privacy of our own home. Nobody’s looking, but we don’t want to let bad habits fester, do we now?

Some days, I cringe at the number of things I pick on my children about. We eventually realized that we often make life extra hard on ourselves. Is it really that important that E and T brush their teeth right after dinner? D and I once sat down and listed all the typical sources of conflicts with our children, and picked five that seemed less important or had easy solutions. We decided we would stop insisting on E and T dressing warm enough before going out and simply pack that extra jacket ourselves. Instead of fighting with E every morning to be on time for school, we gave her a watch, taught her to read the time, and made her, with her teacher’s approval, responsible for being on time. We stopped insisting that she remains seated at the dinner table and instead just say “Boing!” when she suddenly jumps up. Turns out, nothing has gone horribly wrong so far, and we’ve reduced the number of arguments substantially.

A long way to go

We’re far from being exemplary parents. We are impatient, have high expectations, lose our temper and shout. Indeed, we fail almost daily to apply at least one of the principles above. That’s why I wrote them down in the first place!

What to do? We feel it’s important to continue striving for a more serene and loving atmosphere at home.

It’s better for all of us.

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