Here's a little exercise that can help you think about what you want to prioritize as a parent.
First, engage in some time travel. Imagine yourself in the future, when your kids are grown. (If you want, you can have it turn out that you don't look any older than you do now and that you’re driving a convertible sports car instead of a stinky minivan.) From that vantage point, look back at the way you raised your children. How will you feel about the parenting decisions you've made? The experiences you've given your kids.
For me personally, I'm constantly learning new things that make me say, "I wish I'd known that earlier." I expect I'll probably write a book in the future about what the parenting expert wishes she’d done differently, given the perspective of time (and emerging research.)
But if you were to ask me now to predict what I will one day say are the most important things my husband I did as parents that made the biggest difference in how well our three boys turned out—in my imagined future, it so happens that my kids are fantastic humans who have a very young-looking mother—here’s what I’d say.
- We disciplined by using reflective dialogues and collaborative problem-solving, rather than punitive consequences.
Actually, I wish we did more of this, but I truly believe that traditional punishment as a discipline technique is not only less kind and caring, but much less effective as well when it comes to changing behaviors and building character. (Watch for my upcoming book, No-Drama Discipline, written with Dan Siegel and published by Random House, for a book-length discussion of this idea.) Nearly any discipline situation can be better handled by talking to our kids and at times even asking for their opinions on how to address a situation. Firm boundaries and high expectations can be maintained while also using discipline moments to build insight, empathy, and problem-solving.
- We built secure relationships with them.
Instead of simply "managing" our boys and getting them to their activities, we got to know them, and let them know us. We all talked and laughed and argued together, deepening the connections between us all. We consistently (not perfectly) responded quickly and predictably to their needs, and they had repeated experiences that wired their brains to know that they can trust in relationships. And, we were tuned in to their emotional world—we focused on understanding and talking about the internal experience: thoughts, feelings, wishes, regrets, motivations, etc. Sensitive, emotionally attuned, predictable care leads to secure attachment. Secure attachment is the single best predictor for children to thrive. We weren't perfect parents, but we did build strong relationships with our kids.
- We sent them to sleepaway summer camp.
Our boys happen to have gone to a magical place called Camp Chippewa in Northern Minnesota. But summer camp in general is great for kids, in that it allows them to overcome difficult situations like homesickness. Being away from parents and living in a cabin with other kids and mentors of all ages is transformative for many children. The activities at camp are great; they have a blast learning to canoe and shoot a bow and pitch a tent, but it’s the skills, the mastery, and the frustration management that make it so good for their development. The friendships they make, the traditions and rituals they learn, being in nature, and the independence they gain are fun, and they build resilience. They learn a lot about themselves through this experience.
- We made our home a place their friends wanted to be.
One of the best ways we got to know our kids was by watching them interact with their friends. We also liked getting to influence the environment our boys and their peers grew up in.
- We gave them other adults who cared about them.
Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other close friends all became important people in the lives of our children. They never wondered whether they were worth loving or being paid attention to, because there was always a crowd of people in their lives who were loving them and paying attention to them.
- We were present with them without rescuing all the time.
Sure, there were plenty of times when we gave the distracted "uh-huh" while we heard about the latest Lego creation. But we did our best to really be there with our boys. To listen to them, to talk to them, to pay attention to what bothered them and what mattered to them. We wanted them to know that we delighted in them as people, and that we were there for them. Always. Even when they were badly behaved, or they were having meltdowns. We saw our job as walking with them through struggles and letting them know we were there with them—without rescuing them from every negative emotion or situation.
- We gave them a chance to find and do what they loved.
Whether it was sports or piano or art or joke-telling, we did all we could to let our kids chase and enjoy their passions.
- We protected playtime.
I'm not saying that there weren't periodic seasons when our boys ended up being over-scheduled, but for the most part we worked hard to make sure they had time to just hang out and play. We were big fans of enriching activities, but not at the expense of having time for unstructured play that let them imagine and dream and even deal with boredom.
So that's an example of my list. What would be on yours?
Notice that this exercise asks you to think about what you're doing well. You could make a similar list about what you wish you'd done differently. (Watch for a future article in which I outline some of the regrets I imagine I'll be living with in the future. There will be plenty of those, I'm sure—although I always remind parents, as I do in this article, that even our parenting mistakes can be beneficial for our kids.)
The point in all of this is simply to remain aware and intentional about what we're doing as parents. We might see changes we want to make, but we'll also realize that there's plenty we're doing that we'll look back on some day and smile, and even be proud of.