If I could go back in time to when I was a new mother, this is the parenting advice I’d give myself.
Overwhelmed. That’s what I felt.
As my precious baby lay in my arms, staring up at me with her innocent eyes and gentle smile I couldn’t get rid of the nagging thought: “Am I going to be able to do this right?”
It’s a feeling that would haunt me for years to come.
Because more than with anything I’d done in the past, I didn’t want to mess this up. I wanted to get this parenting thing right. But what the definition of “right” was, I wasn’t sure.
If only there were a manual, I thought. Or better yet, what if I could travel into the future to see if everything turned out OK?
With that glimpse, what would I tell myself now to do differently? Which mistakes would I try not to repeat? And what would I do over again?
Fast forward ten years and I don’t yet have all the answers, and many of those questions will stay open-ended for years to come. But as my girls mature and I mature as a parent, there already are things I wish I could go back in time and tell my former self.
Here are just a few:
Let their individuality shine: The child you have is unique. It’s up to you to uncover who she is, not mold her into what you think she should be. Let her be free to discover herself – free, especially, from your expectations. It will let her soar far higher than if you try to direct her in the way you think she should go.
Talk less, listen more: Kids yearn to be heard and understood. Actively listening to your children can be magical. Learn this skill and try to use it whenever possible. And realize that sometimes you will forget to use it and that’s OK. Just try to remember more often than you forget.
Kids push boundaries. Get over it: Your daughters will challenge you. They will argue, and scream and sometimes do things they know they’re not supposed to do. It’s what kids do. It’s how they learn. Try not to take offense. It’s not personal. Really, it’s not.
Kids aren’t naughty on purpose: Disciplining your kids will be so much easier once you recognize this truth: kids are not out to get you. Kids act up when they are hungry, tired, confused about the world around them or feel a lack of connection with you. It’s not always easy, but if you try to figure out what’s really motivating the behavior and address that, the behavior will change.
Don’t sweat the small stuff: Seriously, don’t. Baking the perfect birthday cake, maintaining a perfectly clean and organized house, arriving at story hour on time (and getting annoyed when the girls make us late) – in the long run none of these things matter. Really, they don’t. Time is precious. Don’t waste it agonizing over things that you’ll forget about a few months from now. And especially don’t let these things cause friction in your relationship.
Aim for “yes”: Stop trying to limit your kids. Just stop it. Aim to say “yes” to most things. Like digging through dirt or wearing a bathing suit over PJs to school or putting seaweed, mustard and goat cheese on bread. Kids explore and test. It’s what they do. Saying “no” limits their curiosity. Save “no” for when it matters. Like running towards a busy street or playing with matches.
Less is often more: Spend time with your kids, yes, but also give them space to be bored. It’s amazing what kids come up with when they have downtime to imagine and explore. Also, realize that just like you, your daughters need time to themselves. It helps them recharge and face the world again.
Kids change constantly: Stay focused on the big picture. Growth and maturity can take time and are sporadic. Recognize that every child follows their own timeline. And above all else, don’t get caught up in comparisons. The kid who is “ahead” of your daughter today might be “behind” a year from now, or vice versa. Every child is unique. Make sure your daughters understand this too.
Chill out: Kids are resilient. That yelling match you found yourself in with your four-year-old last week and worried later had scarred her? She’s already forgotten about it. You haven’t damaged her forever. Especially since your good times together outweigh the bad. (As shown in the Magic 5:1 ratio here)
You will sleep again – really, you will: Maybe not tomorrow or the next day, but you will sleep again. Through the night. Really. I know you don’t believe me, but it will happen. Someday.
Be deliberate with your family time: All those birthday parties your kids are being invited to? Waste. Of. Time. Attend the parties of your kids’ closest friends. Skip the others. And don’t go crazy with activities. It turns out starting soccer at age eight, rather than four (or two!), does not put your child at a disadvantage. Free up your time whenever you can. There are only 624 weekends with your kids before they turn 11 (the old age of childhood). Make the most of them.
Treat your kids the way you want to be treated: Ask yourself: If I accidentally spill milk would I want to be scolded? If I feel sleepy, and get a little cranky, would I want to be put in a timeout? And I know you know this, but don’t ever lie to your kids – even a little white lie. Your kids will treat you with respect so long as they too are shown respect.
Hug them and kiss them and cuddle whenever you can: Newsflash: when your daughter grows to be a tween, her hugs will be a little less frequent and kisses almost non-existent. She’ll still want you to give them to her (trust me on this, I can tell) but don’t expect her to willingly give them to you. Not as frequently at least. Take in all their unbridled affection while you can.
You will miss these times when they’re gone: I know it’s exhausting waking up with a four-year-old’s body pressed against your right arm at 5 am. But trust me: you’re going to miss this. You’re also going to miss their request to sit by their side as they lie in bed. Or rub their back when they’re having trouble sleeping. All these things help them feel connected to you. Remember there’s a last time for everything. You never know when the last time will be.
That’s the advice I have for the first ten years. Let’s see what the next 10 bring.
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