There are the warm fuzzy moments of parenting that we all live for, but they can be few and far between — the sweet, unexpected hug; the handmade artwork you find on the kitchen table, the great conversation you have with your teen about life while driving to the grocery store. These moments are like gifts; they make you feel like it’s all worth it — and that maybe, just maybe, you’re getting it right sometimes. But there are also those other moments. You know the ones:
“Why can’t I get on Facebook? Nathan and Jake already have accounts. Their parents are nice!”
“You’re the meanest mom in the world!”
“I don’t want to go to Grandma’s. I don’t care if everyone else is going!”
Pretty much the opposite of “warm and fuzzy.” I don’t know about you, but dealing with that kind of behavior from my kid often makes me feel defeated and exhausted.
I’m starting to realize that most of the time, though, we really don’t give ourselves enough credit as parents. Those warm fuzzy moments are great — we feel so full of love and goodwill — but the other, harder times are just as important. You know what I mean — the times when you say, “No, you can’t go to the party,” or “Homework first, then video games,” or “It’s not okay to talk to me like that.” Those interactions also show our kids we love them…they just don’t feel as good.
This Valentine’s Day, I started thinking about all the ways we show our kids we love them, even though they don’t quite get it yet. Here are my top five:
1. Backing off and not doing too much for them: Letting your child do things for himself and figure things out on his own, even if it means paying some natural consequences, is a way we show love and respect. (It goes without saying that this only applies to situations that aren’t health or safety issues.) “Staying out of my child’s box,” as Debbie Pincus advises, is very hard to do (especially when I see my son making a mistake!), but I’m working on it.
2. Setting limits and giving consequences: Yup — saying “no” to your child can sometimes be the most loving thing you do as a parent. It’s a way of saying, “You matter too much to me to let you do this.” While we can’t control the choices our child makes, we can influence her by setting some limits around behavior. One of my favorite questions that James and Janet Lehman say we should ask is, “What does my child need from me right now?” Sometimes it’s a hug, and sometimes it’s a consequence for inappropriate behavior.
3. Listening: Sometimes the very best thing you can do for your child is listen to him. The other night, my son was trying to tell me how hard school was. He said it was “way harder than working or being a grown-up.” I kept negating him, and explaining why work was actually much harder. Then I realized I wasn’t really listening — I was so intent on winning the argument. I stopped, took a deep breath and said, “Okay, I believe you. Tell me what it’s like.” All the tension drained from his face, we had a great conversation, and I saw things much more clearly through his eyes.
4. Not over-personalizing behavior. When your kid is screaming, “I hate you!” it’s hard not to personalize — but try not to. When they lie to you, it’s hard not to feel betrayed. But it’s not about you, trust me. It’s about your child’s level of maturity, and the fact that she’s trying to solve her problems in some inappropriate (and infuriating) ways. When I’m at the end of my rope, I try to remember to tell myself, “It’s the behavior you don’t like right now, not your kid.”
5. Accepting your child for who he or she is: Simply loving our kids isn’t really enough — it’s also important to accept them for who they are. My son is not as social as I am, and doesn’t always act in an outgoing way. For years, I tried to make him be more extroverted. (Boy, it sounds even crazier when I write it down. I just couldn’t understand why he was behaving as if he was shy, when I was certain he wasn’t…did I mention that stubbornness runs in my family?) So embrace your daughter who prefers hockey to dancing, and your son who loves acting even though you personally can’t stand being in the spotlight. Acceptance is saying, “I love who you are — even though you’re not like me, or not like who I thought you were going to be.” As the Lehmans say, “Love the child you have, not the child you wish you had.”
What would you add to this list?
Elisabeth Wilkins is the imperfect mom of an 11-year-old son and the Editor of Empowering Parents. She and her family live in Maine.