What I have learned as a parent

On Father’s Day a couple years ago, I starting writing down an account of what I thought I had learned from being a parent of two girls– practical matters and perspective, as well as what I’ve learned to shoot for (with mixed results). 

This is not a comprehensive how-to of parenting nor are any of these ideas original. I’ve picked up most of this from others much better at this parenting thing from teachers, other parents and my parents.

Am I some perfect, shining example of parenting? My kids and wife will tell you emphatically, “No!” And so will I. In fact, I often feel I don’t know what the hell I’m doing. Parenting is an on-going feeling of uncertainty or even failure.  But that, I’ve found, is part of the job description of parenting. And that’s okay, because it is at its heart an improv.

I’ve come to see that raising children is perhaps the best way to improve our world and our future. Kids are a beacon of hope and perhaps the best reason for optimism. Children humanize us grown ups and give us perhaps the best reason to let our better self shine.

Here’s what I think I’ve learned as a parent, in no particular order. 

-Dee Bradley Baker, January 2016

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When interviewing prospective pediatricians, try to find one with an on-site x-ray and lab, that way, you don’t have to wait for blood/urine tests or go to another facility to X-ray  a possibly broken bone.

Regular adequate sleep is as important as food and should be a top priority. This is especially true in infancy and early childhood. Sleep solves many behavioral problems, sharpens the mind, strengthens health. The importance of good sleep patterns (for everyone) cannot be overstated. For us, “Health Sleep Habits, Happy Child” by Weisbluth was a life-saver.

What are you actually saying? Babies and children are masters at reading subtext from the very start. Almost like a dog, a child can read what you are saying, even if they don’t actually understand your words. Or even if you don’t actually understand the subtext of your words.

Flu/vomiting: Have a child sleep on layers of clean towels if vomiting or ill. That way, instead of having to change the sheets after every barf, you just peel off the top soiled towel and you have a  clean one underneath.

Avoiding the plague– When something horrible bug is stalking your family, something that is transmitted by contact (hand to mouth usually), I have had success avoiding it by imagining every touchable surface in my home covered in dog crap. This way, every time I touch something or someone, I keep my hand consciously away from my face and then either wash or sanitize it as soon as possible. I go full “Howard Hughes” and it has worked for me a number of times.

Baby talk: Constantly narrate everything to an infant to teach both action, words and intent. You are showing how the world works, how things fit together, how to process. How you make a meal, change a diaper, get into the car, put on a seat belt– narrate anything and everything.

Childhood is a developmental stage separate and distinct from adulthood. It happens once in a lifetime and must be protected as well as nourished. Many features or realities of the adult world are not appropriate or beneficial for a child to know about yet. The idea that kids should “see and do everything from the adult world” is crap.

Good parenting is good improv: The rules of good improv hold for good parenting. “Yes and…,” openness, listening, moving the story forward, not bailing, making it a game, committing to offers made by others, coming up with new offers, not grandstanding, fearlessness in the face of not knowing what will happen, not forcing your own ideas as a scene playing out, a sense of play and fun, second support, etc. All the rules and instincts of good improv apply in parenting.

Play without goal or competition is essential for children as it is for grownups. There is plenty of time for competition and activity directed at accomplishing goals later. “Wasting time” together is often making “good use” of it.

“Time In” versus “Time out.”  When a kid “misbehaves” why banish them to isolation? Is abandonment really what a kid having a tantrum or a rough day needs or even deserves? No. Trying instead bringing them physically to you. Sit right next to them, hold them, be with them instead of banishing them or shutting off your love and connection when they are having a difficult time. This instead affirms that you are with them, that you love them, that they aren’t alone, even when they make a mistake or overreact or are having a rough time with some issue. When they calm down they are left with connection and being with who they love, rather than isolation and banishment from their foundation (their parents).

Non-competitive play is a fundamental human need and children need it not just with each other, but also from their parents. Constantly. Parents need to play, not just work.

Irony and sarcasm are not what a kid needs or understands. It’s not developmentally appropriate.

Let the kid finish their project. Their industry and focus cannot be simply dismissed, for they must be allowed to value what they make and to complete what they begin. They should see that what they want to accomplish is important and that seeing it through to completion is possible. Grownups too often dismiss or sideline without warning a kid’s project.

Quit attaching the word “okay?” to every imperative.  E.g.,When you say, ”Don’t touch that hot stove, okay?” you don’t intend to say, “Would it be okay with you if you don’t touch the stove?” But that is what the “okay?” part implies. “Okay?” implies you are offering them a choice which they can accept or reject– and you aren’t doing that. Be clear: Say instead what you mean by finishing with “do you understand?” e.g: “Don’t step off that curb, do you understand?” “Don’t touch that stove, do you understand?”

“Fair” isn’t always “equal.” Sometimes one kid gets some and the other doesn’t. It isn’t equal but it is fair. E.g: On your sister’s birthday you don’t get presents, or taking turns at choosing where to eat out. Also, a younger kid doesn’t always get the choice/freedom/perks an older sibling does. That is fair also.

Show interest and always ask for an explanation of how the kid did or made that. Show curiosity at what they make and how they did it. Have them explain their process. This not only demonstrates your engagement but also affirms their understanding and ability to create something that is their own– something that is valuable, interesting and merits curiosity.

“Make it okay.” Everyone makes mistakes. Point it out to your kid when you make one. Making a mistake can be okay so long as you honestly act to repair the damage.

It is not my job as a parent to eliminate my child’s “boredom.” Boredom can teach and motivate action. “I’m bored, there is nothing to do,” is a common refrain. Dealing with and overcoming boredom is an important life skill. Having options for play, curiosity, and creativity visibly at hand is a good way to point them in the right direction.

If you “draw a line in the sand,” you had better make good on that, otherwise your parental authority will mean nothing. In other words, say what you mean and mean what you say. E.g., “If you (do this) then we will (do that).” “If you are loud at the restaraunt, we will have to leave.”

It isn’t my job as a parent’s job to make my child “happy.” A parent’s job is to be a good parent, which will sometimes result in a momentarily “unhappy” kid (and/or an “unhappy” you).

“Benevolent neglect:” Children must be allowed to learn from and recover from their own “failures” or missteps. Let a child “fail.” If a child is not allowed to confront and course-correct mistakes, missteps, and grapple with consequences, they will not learn independence and self-reliance. They will emerge from childhood unable to get up or recover on their own. Check out the opening scene in the movie “Ray,” when the mother restrains herself and lets her blind son get back up after falling down, rather than rushing over to immediately offer aid.

Try to offer a choice rather than an ultimatum: Instead of an ultimatum or “because I said so,” try offering a choice, so the kid has some power. Kid: “I don’t want to use an umbrella.” Parent: “We can’t spend the day with wet clothing, so you can choose to use an umbrella or wear a rain poncho.” Then they are empowered with choice rather than just submission or punishment.

Choice: Sometimes they must do what you say, and it’s okay to at least give them the choice of doing it on their own or have you help them do it. E.g., “We have to get in the car now and if you can’t do that, then I will help you.” “I need you to put on your seatbelt. If you can’t, then I will help you.”

Staying “even keel” is a fundamental (if sometimes elusive) parenting skill. Neutralizing or de-escalating an escalating emotional scene is also an important skill/goal.

Kids deserve fair warning or heads-up at approaching transitions:  It’s a matter of both consideration and fairness and is a big issue for kids. How would you feel if you are sitting reading a book and someone marched in and out of the blue said, “Stop what you are doing now, get in the car, we are leaving?” Kids need a heads up as well. E.g., “We are going to lunch in half an hour.” Then, “We are going to lunch in 15 minutes so finish up and get ready.” Then, “We are leaving in five minutes for lunch, so finish up,” then finally, “We are going now.” If that gets no response move on to, “We are getting in the car now and if you can’t get in the car I will help you get in the car.” Sudden transitions can be quite jarring or upsetting for some kids.

“Qualifying” is a handy concept. E.g: You “qualify” for a desert by eating a variety of good-for-you foods. “I want desert.” “Okay, you can qualify for a cookie by eating some good-for-you food.”

Time together, reading together, playing together are not rewards to be doled out. They are regular and everyday.

The difficulty of parenting and being an actor: Diplomacy at home can be particularly challenging for a parent who is also is an actor. Actors must have an immediate tap on sometimes volcanic emotions and make knee-jerk reactions to a scene playing out. Actors earn their living by having emotions at the surface and ready for hair-trigger and full-force use in pretend relationships. At home with family, it is the opposite of this. A parent must consider, hold-off, keep cool and be diplomatic in real relationships. Parenting for actors can sometimes feel like it fundamentally conflicts with what Mommy and Daddy are paid to do.

Dealing with big emotions. Sometimes it’s a good idea to just walk away and cool down before things get too heated. Escalating anger shuts down communication (listening) and works against a constructive resolution. It can also set a bad example of how to choose to deal with frustration or challenge. Intense emotion is often like a weather pattern– fighting to control it or stop it is sometimes futile. Battening down the hatches and letting it pass or just giving it time to dissipate might be the best strategy.

De-escalating an emotional firestorm without battle.Ramping up a bad scene can feel like the easiest most natural choice, but it is usually not the best path. Narrate how you see things, how you feel and why (this is called going “cognitive”). Say why you are getting very angry or hurt, but try to narrate it rather then just yelling. Work against the impulse to get loud or top an escalating emotional confrontation. Give verbal warning before getting loud. “If (X) then I am going to get very angry/ very loud.”

Make a game of something that seems an obligation or boring.

Model a fight fair. Don’t belittle or demean or show disrespect if you and your partner parent disagree. You are working something out that is emotionally charged. That’s fine. You are also modeling for your kid how to deal with conflict by fighting fairly. Try to “narrate” the conflict rather than take the emotional bait. Narrate/describe your feelings rather than just submitting to them. If you need to walk away and cool off and return to it, that can be okay too.

Modeling: You show what you’re made of in how you respond to the inevitable difficulties of life, as well as day-to-day frustrations. You set examples for your kid with how you navigate life.

It’s not always the kid’s choice: It is fair and okay to do what the parent wants to do sometimes. e.g. Listen to a particular radio station or eat at a particular restaraunt. Whose turn is it today? It’s not always up to the kid to choose radio, food, etc. That isn’t fair.

Time off: Mom needs time with other moms. Dad needs time with other dads. Mom and dad need time alone together.

Relationship as botany: A marriage, a relationship, are like a plant that needs ongoing care or it withers.

“How many times do I have to tell you?…” Sometimes it’s necessary to say/show something 500+ or more times before it sinks in. This isn’t something to be upset about. It just takes that many times for it to sink in.

Pick your battles. “Winning” an argument or fight can result in losing more than you thought you won.

Parenthood asks you to disentangle what you’ve learned poorly in your own life so that you can up the impact and influence on your children and the world that which you’ve learned well.

Why clean it up? A clean, ordered room/home inspires creativity better than a chaotic dump. Have creative/fun things organized and out and available. (I find it is hard to maintain this.)

A little praise and appreciation goes a long way. Complements are good for all.

It’s always good to make a gesture of kindness or support.  A child asks you to bring a glass of water not just for the water, but to affirm you are there for them, for example.

“Screentime:” Increasingly, grownups as well as children are captivated by their screens (tv’s, smart phones, tablets, etc.) It is up to the parent to set limits on “screentime” and have activities at hand that are more interesting to do than stare at a screen. It is not a parent’s job to keep a child constantly entertained and occupied, however. But setting boundaries and keeping interesting options visibly at hand help with this.

Popular culture (movies, television, pop music) competes with what you want your child to learn and the values you want to teach. Parents must square off against an entire entertainment industry apparently focused on breaking down the barriers of childhood for monetary gain. Part of a parent’s job is to hold the line of childhood. Parents must set these boundaries and enforce them as best we can.

“Need to know:” A child will usually let you know when s/he is ready to learn about certain “big issues” it is okay to wait until they let you know they are ready. A simple answer can suffice when explaining to a child a complex adult-world issue or problem. Take the cue from the child as to how much detail is needed. (e.g., death, sex, Santa). When they really want and need to know something, they will tell you.

Myth and Pretend: Generally, if kids really need to know something, cue off them as to when to lift the curtain on certain things about the adult world. Otherwise, let them enjoy the protection and safety of childhood. Need to know- and let them let you know that they need to know. My kids never asked me about Santa. I think they could gauge for themselves how much they needed to know and if they wanted to continue enjoying the fantasy, even when they became suspicious.

I’ve never felt the dread I’ve heard from others when the day of Yuletide Revelation approached. The way I see it is this: When I go to the Magic Castle, do the magicians impress me less, is the experience less magical because I know it is all human-made? No. In fact, the magic is even more incredible to me. Do I dismiss a movie or play because I know it is only performed by actors and the special effects are all fake? Absolutely not. That we can create and conjure for each other stories and art that make our stay on planet earth all the more wonderful, fun and engaging is not a bleak reality for me. It doesn’t make our world less vital or magical. On the contrary, for me, the magic is more magical and remarkable because we make it for each other.

The grudge: Don’t underestimate (or be surprised by) a child’s ability to quickly forgive and forget. It’s grownups that hold a grudge.

When interviewing schools, check out any school events or holiday shows, not just the visitation day for prospective parents. Note the vibe of the parents, for they are the new “gang” you will be joining. Private schools: Once you’ve selected your favorite school let them know in no uncertain terms that they are your first choice. If you are coming from another school, enlist the head of that school to also let the new school know your intent. If there are any friends who can vouch for you, that’s also good. A private school wants engaged parents who have a good vibe, are involved and who are willing to help out some too.

Fantasy: Until a child is developmentally ready to separate “reality” from “fantasy,” (which isn’t until at least around six years, as I understand it) there is nothing wrong with pretend or fantasy or deferring confronting or discussing certain issues.

A sense of safety: Graphic or frightening images and situations in television and movies affect a child more profoundly than their appearance may indicate. E.g. An adult sees “Jaws” and is afraid to swim in the ocean. When a child sees images of killing or peril before the differences of reality and fantasy are set (6 years old about), the impact or trauma can be far greater, whether the child exhibits distress or not. A child may in fact demonstrate excitement and eagerness to re-watch a distressing scene, when in fact they are drawn by the endorphin rush brought about by an upsetting or fearful reaction caused by the disturbing images or events. Tone and pace are important indicators of appropriateness.

Much of “entertainment” is not developmentally appropriate for small children: It is way too fast and too dramatic. The jump cuts, loud volume are to jarring and scramble focus. Being overwhelmed is unpleasant for a younger kid, even distressing. Much of mainstream entertainment values overload, speed and high volume. It is up to you as a parent to defend from this or deflect it as long as you can.

For safety‘s sake teach your child to come to you immediately when you tell them to.

Birthday parties: My take: For number of guests, try adding “1” to your child’s age. That should be about right. Many birthday parties for young children are miserable for the birthday kid because there are just too many there. It is overwhelming and chaotic. The child often feels abandoned as the parent is busy overseeing the whole operation and there’s usually excessive sugar and a missed nap involved as well. Especially when younger, I favor a much smaller party or gathering for the sake of the kid.

Your job: What a kid mostly needs and craves is parental presence, engagement, and support– not “stuff.” This is an essential part of my job as a parent: to be with my kids, be present in their day in their life and be supportive no matter what.

Modeling: Children usually take their cue for how to react or deal with life from their parents. The way a parent reacts to things, handles difficulty and treats people sets the tone for your kid’s life.

Academic skills will come later. Learn to play well with others first. Important things for a child to learn: self-confidence, trust in the foundational love of their family and friends, how to play and how to empathize, how to follow your own curiosity.

Read aloud with kids all the time.

Subtext trumps action. Action trumps words. Words matter, but less than the tone of the example I set and what I actually do. It’s not so much what you intended to mean but how it was taken that is the most important thing.

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