You’re always thinking about how to be a good parent. You read articles, talk to other parents, and learn about the latest techniques. You cook healthy meals, help with homework, drive carpools, plan soccer practices, and schedule play dates. You’re proud of your parenting—but often, you’re exhausted by it.
These days, there’s a lot of pressure on parents to be both extremely involved and the perfect amount of detached. We’re trying to be invested and committed without helicoptering, to balance work, life, and family. And while we’re thinking about how to manage the stress and put the kids first, what’s the one thing we seem to be missing?
This lack is particularly frustrating when we take a good look at our kids. They’re instinctively programmed for pleasure and joy. They’re masters at just the kind of skills we’re rusty at, including being in the moment, thinking flexibly, and not sweating the small stuff. In all the hours we’ve put into trying to train and instruct them, we’ve lost sight of what they have to teach us.
Parenting can be fun. Below are five key points to keep in mind in order to relax and take pleasure in what can, after all, be the happiest parts of our lives—time with our kids.
1. Focus Less on Schooling and More on Play
Kids spend up to seven hours per day sitting in school and learning, often in a rote, static way. It’s no wonder they’re in no hurry to come home and do hours of homework. For many of us, precious time is spent cajoling and arguing over spelling exercises. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff have written about why play is actually more important for a child than academics. Einstein Never Used Flashcards: How Our Children Really Learn—and Why They Need to Play More and Memorize Less uses scientific research to show how emphasizing play over schoolwork helps children become better problem solvers, get along more easily with others, and think more creatively.
And not all play needs to happen with the parent as the playmate. Everyone gets some much-needed downtime when we find a balance between getting down on the floor (or out on the court) playing with the kids, and giving them some time to enjoy themselves independently while we sip coffee, answer calls, or leaf through a novel.
2. Set a Good Example of Self-Care
Parents who feel their lives are stressful and out of control want nothing more than to provide a simpler life for their children. Yet if all we ever show them is how busy and stressed out we are, then subconsciously that’s the model they’re likely to follow. To teach peacefulness, we have to feel it, and that means fewer structured activities and more downtime.
Sometimes relaxation means throwing the house rules out the window. Every once in a while, being truly, blissfully flawed is the best lesson you can pass down. One of my close friends revels in the stories of her mother sometimes serving ice cream sundaes for dinner. The spirit of fun and anarchy in that gesture was worth as much to my friend as the hundreds of balanced meals her mother served.
Show your children the value in occasionally putting yourself first, shirking obligations, and doing something just because it feels great. That small example of self-care won’t overshadow all of your great advice about being responsible, or set a standard of recklessness. Instead, it will be a moment of pleasure that you get to share.
3. Be Mindful
As I noted before, kids are experts at appreciating the moment they’re in. A 5-year-old isn’t worrying about tomorrow’s schedule or regretting a decision she made yesterday—she’s fully, delightfully engaged in the play-dough in front of her. All of her senses are involved in how the clay feels, smells, maybe even tastes, and how many teddy bears she can mold, regardless of whether their ears stick on. The more we can follow this lead, the more fun we will be having with the kids.
Martin Seligman spearheaded an approach called positive psychology, a relatively new field that focuses on how to feel happier and be more optimistic. He wrote a book called The Optimistic Child that states how being mindful—consciously appreciating and experiencing the moment you’re in rather than letting your mind drift to the past or future—increases contentment, lowers anxiety, and leads to higher productivity. Our kids instinctively get this; can we?
4. Pick Activities that You Love
We’ve all been there—watching a dreadful kids’ movie that makes us want to tear out our hair, or playing the 12th game of “school” during which your 6-year-old plays teacher and forces you to do math problems. While some of these children’s activities can be fulfilling and heart-meltingly cute, few adults want to spend endless hours on kid stuff. So why not find some pastimes you adore, and then introduce your little one to your passion?
I started my girls on roller skates as early as they could manage, so we could share a physical activity that I love. If you’re turned on by cooking, basketball, or drawing, indulge in your own interests. Your enthusiasm and the time you’re willing to spend on it will likely inspire your children. At a young age, they’re less invested in the activity itself than in the time spent with mom and dad. At older ages, they’ll gravitate to their own hobbies, but are often still willing to try something new, especially if it means more family quality time.
5. Add in More Joy
Sometimes—OK, much of the time—you’re stuck with responsibilities that don’t easily lend themselves to fun. Even on the best day, you don’t spend too many hours just playing. So how do you make each moment more enjoyable? By tweaking the details.
While helping the kids with homework, try to add some elements to make the work less grueling. Turn on the stereo and listen to music. Or recite vocabulary words while throwing a ball back and forth to each other. While cleaning the bedroom or folding the laundry with your kids, make it a competition—whoever puts away the most toys first gets to stay up 10 minutes later, or to pick the bedtime story. Kids fighting too much? Play the silence game during dinner (who can stay quiet the longest), or the laughing game (throw a tissue in the air and “bawk” like a chicken until it falls, then see who cracks up first). A little peace for mom and dad, a little spirit of lightheartedness for the tots.
There are no rules to keeping life more joyful. But having the idea in mind and setting it as a goal can make your day more enjoyable, and set a beautiful example for your children.
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