Learning on the Job
My exuberant seven year old daughter has now burst open the doors on her "big kid" stage of life. And, just like that...my husband and I have had the chance to look back and reflect on her early years. I often wonder how we've stumbled through them, let alone manage to raise a happy and well adjusted child. There are countless things I wish I'd known before she arrived in the world, but l've found that learning comes best from experience..and oh, how packed with learning these seven years have been!
There are very few absolutes in parenting. The art of raising a child, in my first timer's experience, has meant an ability to deftly multitask, think on my feet and stay flexible. An employer's dream in the work world, maybe, but qualities that are just an everyday necessity of parenthood. I devoured every parenting book and article I could find pre-baby, but it turns out that some advice just didn't work for my family. I've had to frequently reassess my priorities and figure out potential problems.
Following are some nuggets of wisdom I can share. If even one overwhelmed parent finds comfort in this list, I consider it worthwhile.
#1 Everyone is an Expert
Open Your Ears
Prepare to be bombarded with advice from family and friends, and it can be tempting to shun their words or tune it all out. Don't! Whether it comes from your mom, brother, cousin, best friend or even your new parent spouse (who may have practical insight to share from different childhood experiences), resist the temptation to nod and do it your way anyway. All parents wants to succeed on their own and claim victory by brilliant decisions, but they will more likely remember the many trial and error moments of those first tentative years.
My daughter suffered major difficulties with eating and sleeping, as well as fearful tantrums centered around getting her nails cut and her hair combed - many necessities of everyday human life. Thankfully, these upsetting problems all occurred at different times in her development and have since been resolved or minimized.
Her eating issues prompted trips to several medical specialists, after which we finally discovered she had a food allergy. Her sleep schedule became more regular after we started (and stuck with) a sleep routine, which I've covered in more detail below. After working with an occupational therapist, we found out she was very sensory sensitive, which could explain her extreme reactions to the nail clipping and hair combing. The therapist offered some practical solutions that we could use to help calm her during these stressful times. Because everything felt so much out of my control, I stubbornly wanted nothing more than to control the outcome myself. If I had fixated on solving everything, however, I would have wasted precious time and felt resentful and frustrated.
Think of advice from family and friends as a valuable gift that may provide a timely and welcome solution; at worst, consider it a well meaning attempt to ease your stress and uncertainty. After all, your loved ones just want to see you and your child happy.
#2 Routines Make for a Happy Household
Every child will benefit from household structure and an established routine
This was a difficult lesson for me - not because I didn't wholeheartedly believe it, but because I had become so used to the spontaneous pre-baby way of living life. My restless and easily distracted daughter desperately needed a regular, soothing household routine. When she expected to follow certain house rules and chores, she felt calmer and cooperated more. She felt safer when there were firm expectations of her behavior, and she enjoyed certain daily routines that were unchanging. We created a colorful "House Rules" chart than could be easily referenced whenever she was unsure of a rule or expectation.
Even with the beauty of such a regular routine, you will find there are still times that present unique challenges. Traveling with young children, for instance, can be the ultimate test of patience and resolve. I've been tempted, waiting in long noisy airport lines, to let my daughter binge on candy and buy all the gift shop toys we could afford. I knew the hour's worth of peace and quiet would have only ended in regret, but I also realized it's just fine to loosen the rules when situations call for it. It's tough traveling with a baby or toddler, so just do your best. Do whatever you can to provide at least a little structure in these situations. Keep your child's belongings well organized, allow them to participate in the trip planning and progress, and don't forget to bring a special familiar toy. A little tip? Make sure to keep track of that familiar toy; you don't want to lose your child's beloved stuffed animal to an airplane seat void.
We carried a small activity bag or backpack whenever we traveled. This also works well whenever you are in long lines- at the doctor's office, in the DMV or at a restaurant-with your family. I packed it with mostly simple toys - crayons, markers and blank paper, puzzles, paper dolls, word games, Play-Doh, flash cards, etc. These are great toys to keep your child busy and happy. I (still) try to save the smartphone apps and games for those special occasions when nothing else is quite working!
#3 Sleepy Time Consistency
Speaking of routines, bedtime consistency is an idea worth its weight in gold.
I'm not talking about the time your child goes to sleep every night; while you should aim for similar times on both weeknights and weekends, life will sometimes throw curveballs. Strict bedtimes can be unrealistic. Be a little flexible, and your child will learn to adapt as well.
A bedtime routine or ritual, though, can really help to calm and prepare your child for quality sleep. I found that the following steps have really benefited my child:
- A quiet bath
- Teeth brushing with "finishing touches" done by Mom or Dad
- Child chooses pajamas (given a manageable choice of 2 sets). This will give the child a sense of autonomy.
- "Tucking in" and giving comfort items like stuffed animals or blankets
- Briefly discussing the events for the next day
This last step will differ, depending on whether you are a working parent or a stay at home parent. I was a stay at home mom, so certain daily activities were more varied. That's why I prepared my daughter by telling her about any appointments, people who will be visiting, stores we will be going to, classes she will be attending, etc.
#4 When All Else Fails, Change Course
You're allowed to shift your position about discipline and privileges.
You may find certain discipline techniques are no longer effective as your child gets older. A concrete time-out with a time limit, for instance, may work beautifully for a toddler, but may fizzle out once the child reaches preschool age. You may find that removing privileges, like playtime with a friend, can be way more effective for a socially aware 4 or 5 year old. Whatever works! The one key here is: don't switch back and forth between discipline techniques from day to day. Announce clearly to your child there will be a new way of handling things when bad behavior happens, and be consistent when trying the new method. Counting firmly from 1 to 10 always worked well as a warning system for my daughter; she knew that a consequence would follow if she did not follow directions by the end of counting.
#5 Loving Discipline
When your child behaves badly, label the behavior and not the child.
I consider this such an important point, especially for a child who is more impulsive or has problems with self control. If children hear that they are "bad" or "a brat", they may start to believe the assessment and fuel a self fulfilling prophecy. But if you say, for example, "I'm disappointed in your bad behavior and have decided on a consequence", then you are firmly placing the emphasis on what they have done and not who they are. If you can then find a way to positively end the conflict, then the outcome will be even better. Reminding your child of those times when you've been proud of their good behavior, as well as offering a loving hug after a consequence, can motivate them to behave better the next time.
The Rewards of Parenting
Parenting works best when it is individualized for each family, but this approach can sometime create an isolating experience. Methods that have worked well for me may not be as effective for other parents. I always love to hear comments and stories from other first time parents, because sharing the highs and lows can be a great source of comfort and support. As parents, we are all in this crazy journey together - a tough, yet incredibly rewarding journey.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Becky Callahan (author) on September 21, 2018:
Pj, Thank you so much for the kind words. I also found out, through personal experience with our very active and strong willed child, the importance of routine and structure. As you said, children learn consistency from routines; that structure can help prevent resistance later when children are trying to assert their independence at every turn!
Pj Page from St. Petersburg, Fl on September 12, 2018:
Wonderful article, this is a great and important topic to talk about! I was reading this personally as a father, and professionally as a marriage and family therapist. One topic that stood out to me personally and professionally is the idea of routine. Routine needs to be structured and consistent, it is so important. This will help resistance and rebellion down the line. With routine, our children know when nap time is, bed time is, when lunch and dinner are, where we eat and how we eat. These behaviors are conditioned from which the parent conduct. As you may know, children are sponges and learn most appropriate behaviors by the time they are 5 years old. Consistentcy in routine will conduct the desired and undesired behaviors. As you said, focus on the behavior, not the child. Be affirming in good behavior and extinguish the bad without guilting the child. This is so important, I think. Thank you for writing this, it is so valuable in the personal parenting world as well as the professional field.