This journey of raising kids is not like we parents expected. It’s nothing we could have predicted.
It’s weird, like two stories of our lives being lived at once. There’s one story which is the running around, getting things done – making a dinner everyone will eat, driving to soccer, doing laundry and finding odd things in pockets, going to work, etc.
Then there’s this other, deeper story, unfolding at the same time that is almost mind-blowingly, achingly incredible:
You are growing human beings.
When you look at how the brain develops, a child’s brain grows new wiring based on the experiences we give them, preparing them for more and more complex tasks. That means that the little things of how we choose to interact with our kids is actually growing their brains in a certain way.
That’s incredible. That’s a huge responsibility. That’s really cool.
It begs a vitally important question:
If the choices we make as parents literally grow the architecture of our kids’ brains, grow who they are becoming as people, what the heck should we be doing?
After MANY years of research, I am happy to share with you some really important ahas. Here we go:
- Up the number of connection points you have with your kids. Nothing matters more to kids’ development than having a warm and close relationship with an adult. Take quick moments to build connection like a hug, asking about your kids’ day, smiling when they walk into the room, tucking them in at night, reading or playing a game together. Actions speak louder than words.
- Take time to play. When did life get so serious? Do something every weekend with the family that is purely fun. Relationships are like bank accounts and fun times are deposits. Do something that’s fun for everyone like taking a walk, biking, or exploring a new place.
- Video games are more fun than anything you’re going to suggest, so don’t take kids’ resistance to your ideas as the final answer. I can’t count how many times my kids said they didn’t want to go skiing or biking and almost every time they’ve had a blast doing it. Getting them out of the house is half the battle. Remind them of the last time they got out when they didn’t feel like it and had a good time. Say, “Let’s just get out there and see how we feel.”
- Family dinners matter. Use dinner time as a time to teach kids about your world and the world in general. Kids love to hear about your own thoughts and struggles. It helps them learn about life. Tell them about the difficult client, the amazing thing you learned, or what you think about a certain current event. Ask them what they learned today. And leave your phone at least 10 feet away from the table.
- Believe in the possibility of growth and change. Success in life is not all about innate talent or intellect. Effort, practice and diligence are the ingredients to success. When kids get frustrated with things they can’t do, remind them of other skills they used to not know that they can do now like walking, tying shoes, and riding a bike. Kids love hearing stories of their first words and other stories of learning.
- Building character matters. Character is the ingredients that add up to being a decent person. Character is built on habits like listening, checking in, following through, and being kind for no good reason.
- The language of emotion is a language kids need to know. There is a whole level of communication between people that we didn’t learn about growing up, that is purely emotional. It’s very important and you can learn it. Learn to read people’s expressions and tone of voice, you can intuit much more than just the words being said. Become aware of your own and your family members’ emotions and talk about it. It matters.
- Ask don’t tell. When you tell your kids to do everything, they’re following directions. If you want to build resourcefulness and critical thinking, ask questions like, “How do you think you could solve this problem” or “What comes next in your routine?” or “Where could you keep it so that you’ll find it every time?”
- Trust builds cooperation. When we’ve got a good relationship (see #1 and #2), kids are more invested in cooperating. Make sure all family members are contributing to the running of the house with at least one chore per day. Do a 10-minute tidy at the end of each day. Have bins to collect random items that kids can put back during the tidy.
- Declutter and exhale. It’s hard to think straight and relax when you live in a cluttered, disorganized environment. Simplify your existence by getting rid of the things that don’t spark joy for you. Go through your house room by room with three bags: give away, recycle and throw away. See if your kids can find 10 things in their room to put in the bags, i.e. books and clothes they’ve outgrown, old toys, and school papers. Take them with you to Goodwill or wherever you will be donating so they can see how their items will start their next chapter in someone else’s life.
- Self control matters and it’s a muscle that can be strengthened with practice. Teach your kids to wait until everyone is seated to start eating, to put devices away for homework (unless they’re needed for the work), dinner and sleep. Teach that the guest goes first, that the things you need to do come before the things you want to do like homework before video games.
- To have a long, healthy, happy life, conscientious matters. Pay attention to the small details, because the little things add up to be the big things. Teach kids that when they take something out, to put it away, to brush teeth at least twice a day, to put homework in the backpack immediately after doing it so it doesn’t get left at home.
- Be clear on what is ok and what is not ok in your home and be consistent. If disrespect is not ok (which it never is), then don’t tolerate it. You can say, “Try that again” or “Use a big girl voice” or “We don’t use that kind of language here” or “Take a break in your room and come back when you’re ready to be respectful.”
- Good discipline teaches the missing skill. The goal is not to punish kids and make them feel bad. Actions have consequences. See #12.
- Strike when the iron is cold. If you ever want to solve a problem with a family member, talk about it when it’s not happening. Emotions usually run too high to problem solve during the event. Choose a completely different time when everyone is calm, or better yet, when the behavior you want to see is happening, as in, “Bedtime last night was so smooth. I really appreciate how you got into bed on time and turned your light off by yourself. Let’s shoot for that every night.”
- Think 5-to- 1. Shoot for a ratio of 5 positive comments for every 1 negative comment to keep the relationship positive overall. Choose your battles and don’t be so critical.
- Let go of perfectionism. Being the perfect parent is unachievable. Shoot for “good enough” so you can actually enjoy the journey. Aim for a B. It’s ok.
- Invest in zest. One of the most important character strengths is zest, or enthusiasm. The best way to fuel enthusiasm is to take care of yourself physically. Exhaustion and stress are the enemies of good parenting. Model getting good sleep, eating well and being active. Make zest a priority as a family.
- We’re happier when we’re grateful. Teach your kids to think of a few things they’re grateful for each day. It makes for good conversation at dinner time or bedtime. Focusing on and letting in the good matters.
- The next right step is always to choose love. Whenever you don’t know what to do next in parenting, always choose the loving option. If you’re too fired up to be loving, take a break or sleep on it.