WASHINGTON — With a return to early-morning routines, after-school obligations and carpool schedules that require more coordination than a cross-country trip, back-to-school means “back-to-busy” for many parents.
And in the grind of the day-to-day, it’s easy to get dragged down by all of life’s demands — bagged lunches and last-minute book projects included.
KJ Dell’Antonia, former editor of The New York Times’ Motherlode blog and author of “How to be a Happier Parent,” said a little perspective and a few strategies can go a long way when it comes to embracing the joy of raising children.
Here are some of her top tips for surviving parenthood with a smile:
Put a.m. anarchy to bed
Nothing sets up a day quite like a morning of screaming, spilled cereal and missing homework.
“When the last thing you shriek at your kids is, ‘Told you you were going to be late!’ and you slam the door, you don’t feel good, they don’t feel good and it’s terrible for everybody,” Dell’Antonia said.
She added that one of the best things to keep in mind during the morning rush is that “there’s absolutely nothing at stake.” Lunches can go unmade, gym shoes can remain lost and everything will be OK.
“One of the things to do in the morning is to just let go of the need that it go right,” Dell’Antonia said.
“Unless you have to clock in at 8:04 and your kid has to get dropped off at 7:58 and you’ve got a four-minute drive — and most of us are just not that tight — your kid could forget all of those things and be late to school, and you will be fine. And, in the long run, they will be fine.”
Another piece of advice she offers for mitigating messy mornings? Get more sleep — a tip that’s more fantasy than reality for busy parents who only see free time after the kids are in bed.
“You’re cranking through, you’re doing your work, you’ve got the kids, and finally, it’s your time. And suddenly, if you don’t go to bed now, you can’t get eight hours of sleep,” a sympathetic Dell’Antonia said.
That is why she recommends parents prioritize downtime so that it doesn’t have to compete with sleep. (Dell’Antonia said this rule also goes for overscheduled teens who juggle hours of homework with sports practice and play rehearsals.)
“The time that you’re choosing what you get to do, that’s important and valuable time that we want, too. So that actually, weirdly, helps mornings,” she said.
Too much help is a bad thing
It’s normal for parents to want what’s best for their kids and to do everything they can to provide a good life for them. But Dell’Antonia warns: just make sure you aren’t doing too much.
“Let me put it this way: Do you want to raise a kid for whom everything has gone perfectly? Do you want to raise the future college roommate who has never even so much as lost a balloon without you replacing it? Of course, on a day-to-day level, we want our kids to be happy and we want things to be good and we want to give them all the things. But realistically, that’s not the adult we want to shoot out into the world,” she said.
So when the gym shoes go missing, don’t make it your problem. Offer to help look, but stay out of the drama. It’s important for kids to make mistakes and for parents to help them deal with setbacks so they “develop the emotional wherewithal to survive a day of forgotten gym shoes,” Dell’Antonia said.
“If you do all the things for them — if you make sure everything goes smoothly — then they don’t get the experience of things not going smoothly,” she added.
“I think it’s just important to remember that it’s not really our job to ease the way. It’s our job to teach them to deal with what’s going to be a complicated life.”
A boring dinner is OK
Dell’Antonia said dinner time is the biggest chunk of time when most members of a household are together in one place. Therefore, it’s important to make the most of it — even if that requires some advance planning.
“It’s really hard to sort of sail home from work and pickup the kids from day care and walk into the house and have no idea what’s for dinner,” Dell’Antonia said.
She understands why some are turned off by the predictability of meal planning, but said “from a happiness perspective, especially when your kids are little,” having a routine, a few prepped meals or a well-stocked pantry, is “a gift from not having to make those decisions at what you know is going to be a tough time of day.”
“You can go back to gourmet cooking when they’re bigger,” she added.
A shift in perspective
It’s easy to zero in on the constant mess, the crayon-colored walls and the toddler tantrums, but Dell’Antonia said one of the best things parents can do to improve their happiness is to focus on the good.
“Recognize the good things that are going on around you, that when you walk in the door with that screaming baby and the two toddlers running amok that, you know, you wanted the babies and the toddlers and that this is sort of the warm, fuzzy part of your day, even if it’s a little rough and not the sort of sitcom beautiful thing that you were somehow hoping for,” Dell’Antonia said.
“When we spot the good and help our brains to not just focus on the bad bits … then it just gets easier for our brains to sort of feel good about where we are and who we are and what we’re doing, which we ought to. We have lovely, modern lives. We really do.”
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