We are, as the saying goes, creatures of habit. As Jeff Olson in The Slight Edge says, “The sobering fact is, we do 99.99 percent of everything we do on autopilot.” Imagine that?!
With parenting, I would give anything to go back and intentionally choose that autopilot, be selective about my parenting habits; it was so much easier to form bad ones when I let them develop unconsciously. I think about the fact that I yelled when things got stressful. I was never a yeller. My mother never yelled. In fact, no one ever yelled at me. But, at some point when my kids became tweens, I yelled. It must have felt good because then I did it again – and 10 years later I had to actively take that process apart. Even sadder is that image in my head of the fear and sadness on my kids’ faces when I yelled; that is harder to dismantle. What if instead I’d developed the habit of pausing as a means to halt that unintentional response? Or validating their emotions before sticking to the rule?
Grandiose resolutions are not easy to keep (research shows that about 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail). Dammit! And resolutions are very results-oriented which, in terms of our parenting, often doesn’t acknowledge the small steps that add up along the way. Consistent, but not perfect, change in the right direction is what really makes a difference. My fancy chore chart plans with elaborate bells and whistles and a huge reward at the end rarely stood the test of time (yes, the girls still make fun of me ‘we just gave it a few days and knew it’d go away’).
On the other hand, I learned to trust that they could handle difficult situations on their own and sent that message often. The truth is that it might have started as a way for me to fight back against the wave of overprotection that we feel as parents. I didn’t do this in one fell swoop or with one goal in mind - rather, it was the little moments. When their cookies burned, I celebrated it: burning was a way to learn how not to burn. When one came home complaining that the teacher was awful and her friend’s mom moved her to another class, we discussed what a bummer that was but looked at ways for her to deal with that. When the nine-year-old didn’t make the team she wanted to, I offered that she step up as a leader on the team or play with her weak hand so that she'd better her chances to make the team the following year. Don’t worry, I have plenty of examples of me trying to rescue too (which, I hasten to point out, rarely worked). But my point is that the cumulation of all those small moments was a message of believing in them: I trust that you can handle the situation, the emotion, the disappointment. You can do it. I’d like to think that this has been at least partially responsible for not only their self-confidence but also their self-efficacy, the knowledge that if things are tough, they can put in effort to improve the situation, or if they fail, they can try again.
What’s my point? Think evolution, not resolution, for 2021. When I work with parents now, we use microsteps: simple ideas that require minimum effort and are too small to fail. Just think: if you have an 8 year old and you learn to validate his emotions and you do that once a day – just once – by the time he’s 10, you’ll be an expert, and by the time he’s 18, you will have validated your child’s emotions over 3600 times! The result: a child with self-awareness – which research shows improves resilience, relationships and decision making skills.
The stress of parenting and growing up today is intense. Let’s start small to make a big difference. And you don't have to do this alone. It’s a new year; I am always here to offer support and expertise - not only for the day to day behavioral struggles, but guidance to build the kind of relationship you want with your children.
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