There are lots of things I wish I knew as a first time mom that could have helped in making parenting easier.
Is the belly button cord really supposed to look like that?? Are Facebook Mom Groups really this intense? Why do children need SO MANY GOLDFISH CRACKERS?
I spent a lot of time before my baby was born thinking about things like what stroller I should buy and how to use a swaddle.
But it turns out these weren’t really the most pressing things (go figure)!
If I could go back in time to understand one simple principle in parenting that would have made things much easier in so many areas, it would boil down to a very basic idea.
So basic, it seems like we would all get this intuitively, and yet I would wager a bet that most, if not all, parents miss the mark.
I know for sure I did.
I’m the mother to 3 kids now. Here is what I wish I understood from the very start, right when we brought Baby #1 home from the hospital, that would have helped to make parenting easier:
Do not START something with your child that you are not prepared to CONTINUE doing over the long term.
I’ll admit right here that there are exceptions to this! Of course you may want to nurse a newborn, and not nurse a pre-schooler. (That right there is a discussion for an intense FB mom’s group!)
But that’s not the kind of thing I’m talking about.
What I’m talking about is simply this: your child will get used to the conditions and parameters you set up for them. They will come to expect things that they have been conditioned to expect. And when this happens in a positive direction, you are making parenting easier on yourself.
Pretty simple, right?
It’s easier to loosen the reigns than it is to tighten them.
I learned this from my mom, who was a 4th grade teacher.
She always started out the school year on the strict side. The kids in her classroom learned what her expectations were for them, and what sort of behaviors she was ok with.
Once the kids had well established routines, and once they had integrated themselves into the framework of the classroom – it was at that point that there was room for some flexibility and lots of fun.
If my mom had begun the school year too “loose” – and with too little an emphasis on the expectations and norms of her 4th grade room – she would have quickly had an unruly bunch of students.
The classic kids book “Miss Nelson is Missing” perfectly illustrates this. The sweet, total pushover of a teacher (Miss Nelson) needs to disguise herself as a strict substitute in order to regain control of her class, who were accustomed to walking all over her. She needed a reset (more on this later).
(I’m not suggesting that you disguise yourself in your own home, unless your children are very, very gullible and you have a way with costume design.)
But I digress.
Note: As a high school counselor I saw this time and time again with the best teachers. The really great ones (that kids loved, and who got the most out of their students) had consistent routines, strong boundaries, and well established norms in their rooms. From that strong start, they layered in fun!
Kids need boundaries.
Children are sponges, and they will quickly learn where they can push limits, and where they can’t.
The boundaries that we – as parents – decide upon will give our children the structure and predictability they need in a world full of uncertainty.
Ultimately, boundaries and routines will make our lives easier, our kids’ lives easier, and everyone in the family happier.
Let’s look at some examples.
I can see so clearly, in hindsight, where I nailed this principle – where by my actions I was making parenting easier. And I can also see where I totally did not nail it.
The reason it’s so crystal clear is because in the areas where we nailed it – where my husband and I set up routines, schedules, and limits – from early on are the areas where we encounter little resistance from our kids today.
The areas where we missed the mark, and where we created expectations for our children that we do not really want to continue – those are areas that are still problematic. Those are the areas where we encounter vastly more power struggles on a daily basis.
I’ll start with a few areas that we nailed it, so I can feel like a winner mom for a minute here.
We nailed bedroom routines from early on, and we’ve been reaping the benefits for years now.
Bedtimes can be a struggle in lots of houses – they can take forever, kids will stall, kids will devise all sorts of tactics to get out of bedtime.
But that doesn’t typically happen in our house.
I know I don’t have magic children. I double checked this and I’m totally sure. They are just regular standard-issue children.
And we do have lots of other struggle areas. But at bedtime they are consistently easy (making space for the occasional regression, which I think is par for the course).
Our bedtimes generally work smoothly, which looks like this:
- Baths are not a huge pain
- PJs go on without a fight
- Teeth are brushed without the need for wrestling
- Bedtime stories are read for the agreed upon amount of time (there are so many great books for toddlers and books for preschoolers to choose from!)
- Kids are asleep by 7:30
The reason bedtime works like this is simply because this is exactly how we have been doing bedtimes for years.
The kids know what to expect.
Since stories always follows teeth which follows pajamas which follows tub – night after night – and since this whole thing ends at 7:30 – the kids expect it and don’t push back against it.
The routine is so well worn that it doesn’t necessitate a pushback, because the kids understand it’s not an area for negotiation. Even my 6 year old never asks to stay up late, because it’s simply not what he’s accustomed to.
On certain occasions does he stay up later?
OF COURSE! Sometimes we have parties, or trips, or holidays, and the rules bend. But he sees this as a deviation from the norm, and understands that the baseline is what we’re going back to.
Not allowing random toy purchases while shopping
Our kids have never been allowed to get random toys off the shelf when we are at the store for other purposes.
Target, I’m looking at you.
When we go to the store to buy a birthday present for another child, we do not leave with “treats” for our own kids.
Because we have never been in the habit of allowing our kids to get toys when we’re shopping for other things, they simply don’t expect this to happen.
And when kids don’t expect something to happen, they don’t ask for it incessantly.
It never becomes a point of contention when you don’t set up the expectation in the first place.
Managing Screen Time
I have a friend whose kids love TV. They love it as much as the next guy! They will ask for it a lot in the afternoons.
However, they never ask for TV in the mornings – even though they will make many requests for it later in the day.
Why is this? Do they not know about On Demand?
OF COURSE THEY DO YOU GUYS. THEY ALL KNOW ABOUT ON DEMAND.
No, it’s not that. The reason these kids don’t ask for TV in the morning is simply because they have never been in the habit of watching TV in the morning. Their mom doesn’t put TV on in the morning.
And so, the kids adapt. They don’t see this as an option, and when something is not on offer there is no reason to ask for it.
Now let’s look at an area where we did not nail this.
Snacks are doing us in. This is an area that I feel I’ve absolutely NOT SET UP PARAMETERS FOR SUCCESS.
My kids learned (from me!) that snacking throughout the day is the norm. They learned that snacking in the TV room is the norm. And in the car. And in – ok everywhere! Don’t judge me, I told you we are failing at this one!
They are snack monsters wanting snacks all the time.
This is because that’s how I conditioned them. I conditioned them to expect that they can eat wherever, whenever.
And now I’m paying for it.
It doesn’t have to be this way. How do I know this?
Because – FRANCE.
In France this isn’t a thing. It’s not a problem the way it is in America.
And then there are snack foods. When I’m with friends and their kids in America, little bags of pretzels and Cheerios just seem to appear all the time in between meals….French kids typically eat only at mealtimes and at the afternoon gouter. I’ve never seen a French child eating pretzels (or anything else) in the park at ten A.M. – Pamela Druckerman, from Bringing Up Bebe.
Kids in France aren’t magic kids. Actually they might be, I’ve never taken a sampling to test for this.
But let’s assume that French kids are standard-issue kids.
Why aren’t French kids clamoring to eat all day long? Why are they not all addicted to Goldfish crackers?
It’s because the norm in France is not to eat all day long.
And so the kids do not expect it.
This principle applies to so many aspects of parenting.
- Don’t want your kids to drink juice? Don’t introduce them to juice!
- Don’t want your kids to use a tablet at restaurants (or in the car, or at the grocery store) Don’t ever bring a tablet to those places!
- Want your child to play independently? Don’t involve yourself in every aspect of their play when they are babies! Give them a little space so they can become accustomed to independent play.
- Don’t want your kid to nap in the car? Don’t take them for car naps! (I admit another epic fail in my own parenting on this one).
Remember: Once you start something, it’s much harder to stop it than it is to never start in the first place.
So what to do if you’ve already gone astray?
Let’s be honest, we’ve all gone astray somewhere. Are we totally screwed now?
We are screwed.
(Just kidding. I did think it would be funny to end the post here, but I will carry on).
Sometimes, a reset is in order
To reiterate the main point here: You will save yourself a lot of frustration if you think in advance about what you want in your home, and be consistent from the start with enforcing that.
However, that does not always happen in practice. So let’s figure out how to start making parenting easier on ourselves.
Sometimes, we need to gain clarity about what it is we want for our families, and we need to reset things.
Ready to make parenting easier? Let’s go.
Make a clear decision about your intent.
This is first. You need to be clear in your mind about what it is that you want to establish. If you are parenting with a partner you will need to discuss this and mutually agree upon the parameter you’re setting.
Let’s say the new parameter is that your children can only watch 1 television show after dinner, rather than the multiple shows they’ve been watching.
Come up with a plan for how to put your decision into practice.
In the TV show example it could look like this:
You get an index card for your child, which serves as a token that they can “redeem” for their nightly show. They turn in their token, and that reinforces the notion that this is a one and done situation.
(We have used this system in our house, and actually written the names of their favorite TV shows on the cards. That way, they can choose which show they want from the cards vs. choosing by clicking around with the remote control, which takes way longer and which can be overwhelming for kids since there are so many choices!)
Explain the new plan to your kids.
Be matter of fact, and be firm. You can admit that you were letting them do (insert undesirable thing) before, but you’ve thought about it and realized that it wasn’t what was best for them.
So the plan is going to be different moving forward. You want to make parenting easier, and you need the kids on board.
Your kids may balk at this, but it doesn’t need to be a long discussion. It certainly isn’t a debate, although you can expect that kids will have feelings about it!
I would suggest letting them express their feelings to get it out of their system. They are entitled to their feelings, but they aren’t entitled to determine what the new rule is.
That’s why you’re the parent. They can have the pleasure of determining rules in their own home once they have all the other pleasures that go along with being an adult, like figuring out health insurance and how to properly make a lasagna.
Consistently enforce the new habit until it becomes – habitual.
This will take some time. Probably some complaining. Maybe a few tears.
In related news, here is a good place to remind yourself that parenting is fun! And easy!
Allow for a bit of flexibility here and there.
Be careful with this one, especially early on. What I don’t mean is this:
You tell your kids no snacks in the living room, and then every other day you’re like “it’s ok kids, go for it with the snacks in the living room today!”
No. You will undo all your good work like this, and create an even bigger problem. Once kids understand that your expectation really didn’t mean anything, they will push harder and harder for what they want, knowing that you’ll break sooner or later.
What I do mean is this:
You tell your kids no snacks in the living room. They don’t get to eat any snacks in the living room for a few months. But then you’re having a sleepover/movie night and the kids want to have some popcorn, curled up on the couch with you, while they watch a movie. And you think this would be delightful.
That is a situation that you choose to bend the rules, and make sure your kids understand that it’s a special treat, and that you’re not going back to turning your couch into a Vegas Buffet.
Gradually, things will improve.
The awesome thing about kids is that they are always learning to adapt to new situations. They evolve constantly, and they are malleable! This ability to adapt means that even if you’ve dropped the ball before, it’s not too late to start making parenting easier on yourself.
Kids can, and will, adjust to new norms in time.
This will be much smoother for everyone if the new norms are reinforced consistently and if you feel, in your gut, a conviction that you’re doing the right thing.
Kids will sense if you’re wavering, and they will capitalize on your weakness.
(Not to make kids sounds like predators here, but you guys they are predators. And they will eat you alive if they smell fear. We both know this is true.)
So: Make your plan, explain your plan, stick to your plan.
Make your plan, explain your plan, stick to your plan.
And better yet, if you’re in the position to do so – set yourself up for success right from the start by giving some real thought into what habits, routines, and standards you want for your family. It will make parenting easier for you, and it will be better for your kids in the long run.
You’ll thank yourself later.