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Friday, November 9, 2012

Parenting 101 (or should it be 911?)

I have had different jobs in my life, and it would be tempting to say that parenting is the most difficult one. But I won't, for 3 basic reasons. First, because it is a big cliché that I don't want to repeat. Second, because as much as parenting IS demanding, it is also the one job where motivation and unconditional love are there to fully support our actions and decisions. Third, because there is no other job as rewarding.

What I do know about parenting is that it's complex. So many factors come into the picture! Parenting is full of expectations (toward the child, toward ourselves, toward other people in the child's life... all too often unrealistic). Parenting is full of contradictory, deep feelings (sometimes unconscious); looking after other people's kids seems so straightforward in comparison! Most of all, parenting has huge implications. One faux pas, and your child might very well be scarred for life. (OK, maybe not, but you are still working with the most precious and fragile raw material there will ever be: a young human being.)

Even before I learned I was pregnant with my first child, I had already decided I was going to be the best parent ever. Of course, it implied that my future child would be the best child ever, too! Fortunately, parenthood has its very efficient way to nip perfectionism right in the bud. How could you remain a perfectionist when you're permanently sleep-deprived, when the house reeks of poopy diapers, when the floors are covered with toys and sticky food stains and, if you're lucky, when your nipples are cracked/bleeding from an overly voracious infant? As a new parent, most of your time and energy is spent looking after someone else's - anarchic and messy - bodily functions. Good news: my perfectionism was cured shortly after I became a mother. (When I feel discouraged, I go on this website and instantly feel better.)

Still, I had to find my way in the panoply of books written by as many experts: what kind of parent would I be? Somewhere between Fitzhugh Dodson, Dr Phil and SuperNanny's strategies, Rousseau, Piaget and the attachment parenting movement's theories, my own mother's advice, my personal observations and my deep instinct, I gradually formed my own parenting style. I had already learned (from my Psychology major) that the best approach is an authoritative one (assertive, democratic, balanced) as opposed to the other approaches: authoritarian/totalitarian, indulgent/permissive or neglectful. Basically, the most effective parents would be responsive/loving AND demanding at the same time. Which totally makes sense.

Somewhere on the path to good and informed parenting, however, all kinds of things happen. We become tired. We become stressed. We lose touch with our priorities. It's normal. It's OK. Children are more resilient than we tend to think. As I read somewhere: You can make mistakes. Just don't make the same mistake over and over again. (And of course don't make huge, terrible mistakes. But small - and even medium - mistakes are fine.)

Today I am putting together my top ten of parenting DOs and DONTs. This list is personal; it stems from my own experience and from the numerous books and articles I have read - always with a critical eye of course. No one - even so-called experts - has infused science, especially when it comes to such a sensitive topic. Use your common sense, and listen to your heart.

Parenting DONTs

1) Don't listen to people who tell you that it was so much better in the past

It seems like a lot of parents of grown-up children believe they have infused science, too. In some kind of idealization of the past/attempt to decrease cognitive dissonance, they will claim that parenting was perfectly fine back in the days, thank you, and that no changes need to be made. I am a relatively recent parent (my oldest is 8 years old) and things have already changed. For example, plastic bottles are not recommended anymore. I'm not gonna go around telling new parents "Why, keep using them; we did, and nobody died!" We would be fools to just ignore the advances of science. If putting babies in their crib on their back decreases SIDS considerably (and it does), why on earth would we be opposed to it?

A common argument of "parents of the past" is the ubiquitous "you survived!" Yes, most of us survived to not wearing helmets, seat belts and the like. Does it mean that using them is a bad thing? There are less accidental deaths/injuries in children nowadays; to me, that's a strong enough argument. So I say: safety first. Get informed (about the ways to prevent accidents/injuries in babies and children). Get trained (in first aid and CPR). As for the psychological side of things, if it was so perfect back in the days, how do you explain that so many adults nowadays are completely fu**** up? Seriously! Show me an emotionally balanced adult, and I will show you a good parent. Period.

There IS common wisdom to be gained from the past. But all that glitters is not gold, and all oldies are not goldies.

2) Don't overprotect

This might sound paradoxical considering our number 1 DON'T, but there is a fine balance to be found when it comes to safety. Children need to explore. Children need to experiment. Children need to test limits (their own, that of the tree branch, etc.) One of the things I appreciated the most about my own childhood is that I had a lot of freedom. And so, even if it terrifies me at times, I try to give some freedom to my children as well. Minor incidents, injuries and pain (physical and psychological) are inevitable anyways. They make you grow. They teach you how to deal with life's challenges.

Overprotecting applies to germs, too. Some of us parents are obsessed with germs. Let's quit it already! Immune systems are built by being exposed to germs! There is such a thing as an overly clean house. Proof: I got my first stitches (age 2) not by swinging from a chandelier, but from walking right into a patio door. I bet you it was way too clean.

We clean, we clean, we over clean. We so don't want our kids to get a common cold, we expose them to all sorts of chemicals that could give them cancer instead! Let's relax. Dirt and dust are fine. Natural cleaning products (ecological lines for soap and shampoo; baking soda, lemon juice and vinegar for the house) work wonders, and keep our systems healthy. In my house, we are almost never sick (knock on wood). Yet if you come on the right day, you might be able to trace your name on top of the piano. Go figure.

3) Don't forget yourself (and your couple)

Being a good parent doesn't mean sacrificing your own needs and happiness, and the needs of your couple. As my mother says: you were a couple before the kids came, and you will still be a couple after they leave (well, in 50% of the cases anyways...) Raising children, helping them bloom and entertaining them does not mean that we, as grown-ups, don't need (and don't want to) be entertained and learn/grow. I will be a child and a teenager at heart until the day I die, and I treat myself accordingly: a good social life, my own activities, learning/growth opportunities, and lots of fun! Plus, I think it gives a great example to the children, to see their parents take care of themselves and enjoy themselves.

The moment you start neglecting your own needs, you might find yourself losing patience way more easily. You can't be calm and patient if you are fundamentally frustrated in your needs. You have to look after yourself in order to look after your kids better.

Parenting DOs

4) Be consistent

When you think about it, children are pretty simple creatures (as most of us belonging to the animal kingdom are): they respond very well to clear rules and expectations. They also react in a very predictable way to consistent patterns of positive or negative reinforcement. Whenever we send a message that something is OK (tolerating undesirable behavior, or even reinforcing it - often without even realizing it), well guess what... the behavior will keep happening. If we want the whining to stop, we have to stop giving into it. If we want to have quiet, uninterrupted sleep, we have to stop taking kiddy in our bed. If we want aggressivity to stay within the realm of the socially acceptable, we have to adopt a "zero tolerance" approach.

So simple, yet so difficult to apply... because, again, we are human, and more often than not, simply overwhelmed with all there is to do. So we fail. Myself included. But through my mistakes I have learned. I make a point of reminding myself that "sometimes, I have to suffer now in order to enjoy later". Whenever, as parents, we implement something new, the first few days/weeks can be a rough ride. For example, when I decided to use the 5-10-15 technique to get my babies to sleep through the night (once they were old enough and big enough to not need milk anymore - never before six months of age), the nights got much worst at first: I barely slept, and it was torture to let the babies cry for even just a few minutes. I had to keep my eyes on the timer and resist the strong urge to go pick them up. But sure enough, they eventually learned that nothing interesting happens if you wake up and cry in the middle of the night, they taught themselves to fall back asleep (a good talent to have), and the behavior gradually disappeared.

5) Follow through

This number 2 DO ensues from number 1. If there is going to be a consequence to an undesirable behavior, and especially if it has been announced to the child, follow through. Too often we fear the child's reaction. We don't want to make them upset. We don't want to deal with a tantrum. Often, applying the consequence simply is too inconvenient. So we find excuses not to apply it. It happens to me all the time. I have to reason with myself. What's worse: not being allowed to attend a party, or growing up as a bully because your parents never did anything about your antisocial behavior? What's better: some frustration and discomfort, or growing up without guidance, never experiencing the consequences of one's own actions? Do we want children who are never upset, or are we raising future adults who will be functional, responsible... and happy?

When my daughter started reminding me of a certain character in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I knew I had to do something. She was systematically dissatisfied, easily upset, and did not seem to appreciate what she had whatsoever. Even if we had just offered her a pair of “princess shoes” (that she had been dreaming of for the longest time), she still complained to us that she owned nothing she really liked, that we never did anything for her, and so on. I reminded her about the shoes. But she kept whining, day after day. I told her that if she did not truly appreciate the shoes, some other child who does not have money to buy shoes certainly would, and that if nothing changed, I would donate THE shoes. She did not flinch. She was still talking and acting like a little brat, and I was running out of gas (and beginning to worry about the kind of individual she was turning into).

One day, I did the unthinkable (I really had to kick myself in the rear end): while she was at school, I took the princess shoes and went and donated them to a local charity. I said nothing until my daughter noticed on the following day. Then I explained what I had done, expecting her to throw a full-blown tantrum. She did not. She stayed very calm. In fact, she has been pretty calm (and polite, and respectful, and grateful) since then. Another small victory!

If you have a misbehaving teenager and nothing seems to be working, I've heard that removing their bedroom door can do wonders. My friend K, who's a high school teacher, had a student who once exclaimed “Yeah! It's Friday, I get my door back!”

(For other examples of following through, read this post.)

6) Teach independence

Getting back to future adults, I am a strong believer that children are capable of - and strongly benefit from - becoming independent. Yes, I know, it is sometimes way more convenient to do everything for them. Plus, it tells us we are indispensable, which is a nice feeling to have. But an even more important feeling is for children to feel competent. Children can do so many things! It should obviously be taken from an individual perspective, but the bottom line is: if we don't give them a chance to try, they will not learn! Two year olds can get dressed on their own with minimal help. Four year olds can swim a short distance without floaters. If only we give them the opportunity. School -aged kids can help significantly with house chores (not limited to their own bedroom), and it makes them proud (don't get mislead by the occasional complaining).

7) Share your passions... all the while respecting the individual

As adults we have all developed passions and talents. I believe the best gift we can give our kids is to share those passions with them. At the same time, we need a certain level of detachment: I certainly want my kids to be physically active (athletic, even), since it's a passion and a value that I cherish, but I am not to impose any specific sport on them. They will pick the one they like best... eventually (for now they are still trying things out). Although cultivating my detachment, I do feel all fuzzy inside when I see my daughters swim, or when we run together. I feel blessed that they enjoy those activities just like I do.

Sharing passions is also a great way to build memories. We all have memories of what we did with the important adults in our lives, of what they taught us, of special moments we shared. Again, it is a gift to give children, those magic moments together.

8) Keep the communication lines open

Life is busy. We don't always have time (or, let's be honest, feel like) to listen to our children, or to ask how they are doing. Yet it is so important. Things will never be perfect. At times, things will feel out of control and completely chaotic. But if your child knows s/he can talk to you and get your full attention and respect, I strongly feel that all will be good in the end. I try really hard to turn to my children, face them, look at them in the eye, and pay attention, when they talk to me. I am not saying it's easy. As any other busy parent, I regularly have to tell them to wait (if I am already talking with someone else, or if something is about to burn in the oven, for example). And there are days when I would rather keep reading or watching TV (or even daydreaming). But I really try to make time for one on one conversations and confidences. You learn so much about your child that way. And they learn so much from the attention you give them in those important moments. The house should be a haven children can retreat to after a tough day at school, a place where they know they will be fully accepted.

I recently had a conversation with my daughter, following an aggressive outburst by her, that she justified by saying “But I can't control myself”. I obviously disagreed with this oversimplified (and self-indulgent) explanation, but I did not quite know how to approach the topic. That is when I happened to look at a baby picture of her we have on the wall.

I took her to the picture, showed it to her, and said: “See this picture? This is you when you were a baby. BACK THEN, you could not control yourself. Whenever you were unhappy about something, you would cry and scream. You could not control it. When I fed you, you would spit your purees or throw pieces of food on the floor, because you thought it was funny, even if I frowned and said no. You could not control it either. For goodness sake, you could not even control your bum! You peed and pooped in your diaper (or on yourself if without a diaper for a minute) all the time!” (There my daughter laughs.) “Yet all that time I still loved you, because I knew you couldn't help it, and, let's admit it, because you were really cute - see how cute you are on the picture?” (Here my daughter smiles and hugs me.) “And I knew that with time, you would grow up and learn how to control yourself. Soon you didn't cry all the time anymore, you didn't make a mess with your food, and you started using the toilet. I was proud of you. When you were 2 years old, you did bite and hit people on the head with your sippy cup, but again, you learned, and grew out of it. This is why I know that you will keep improving: every day you grow up and learn more and more to control yourself. It's not always easy. You're still a child. But you get better all the time, and I know that you are able to control your aggressivity if you try a little bit harder.”

Needless to say, this was a very important moment for my daughter and I, the kind of moment we often don't make time for, just because we are so busy and preoccupied. It lasted what, 5 minutes? But the trace of this moment will forever be in our minds and hearts.

9) Love, love, love

Since we're at it. The best part of parenting is unconditional love. Of course, it has its downsides: children will always act out more with their parents than with anybody else - that's a sign of trust and a of safe attachment. The love between a parent and a child is the strongest tie, that is, as long as we don't ruin it. No matter how chaotic a day has been, love is to be shown and said. There is no such thing as too many hugs or "I love you"s. (When my children were babies, I did baby massage and baby yoga with them. I danced with them. Physical contact is a great way to strenghten the bond. I also sang lullabies to them, and I still do. It's one of my ways to show my love.) I have told my kids that no matter what, I will always love them. Even if sometimes I feel like unscrewing their head and throwing it out the window! Not wanting to leave anything unsaid, I have also told them that I will be there for them always, even after I die: they can still talk to me within their heart, and listen for my answers. After all, don't I do it with my own dad?

10) Enjoy the ride!

Parenting certainly is an adventure, with all its good and all its bad. Let's enjoy it, because from what I heard... it goes by very fast!

To help you enjoy, here are a few sweet tunes about childhood and parenthood:

By Yves Duteil : Prendre un enfant par la main

By Jacques Brel : Un enfant

By Steven Faulkner : Le météore

By Michel Fuguain : Vis ta vie

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