When I saw the title, “How to Be a Happier Parent” at my local library, I was curious. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to be happier! Written by KJ Dell’Antonia who is a former editor of a New York Times parenting column, the book has chapters on dealing with pain points, called: Mornings, Chores, Siblings, Sports and Activities, Homework, Screentime, Discipline, etc.
Even though it’s not the main or only message of the book, my biggest takeaway from this book is that taking care of myself will make me a happier parent. I used to poo-poo this idea when my children were younger, and in road warrior-fashion, I made sure that my kids should always come first. However, I’m a little older now, worse for wear, panting to keep up with the kids, and finally starting to realize that even if I want to put my kids first all the time – that actually means that I need to be my best self – first. So, how to do this?
Duh. Getting enough sleep seems like a no-brainer, but I don’t think sleep makes it to many parents’ priority list as much as it should, mine included. Dell’Antonia brings sleep up in relation to mornings which are rushed and chaotic because so much can be out of our control at that time. However, she declares that there’s one thing that for many people is more controllable about those mornings – and that’s SLEEP. (Incidentally, I struggle with RBP, revenge bedtime procrastination. If you’ve never heard of RBP, but you often stay up later than you should, check to see if you have RBP too!)
But sleep is critical to more than just the morning. I find that being a better and therefore, happier parent, HINGES ALMOST ENTIRELY on getting enough sleep! If I just wasn’t so sleep-deprived and tired all the time, then I would have more energy to do all the hard things like setting limits, following up on chores, and disciplining consistently. Everything is so much easier to handle when you’re not sleep-deprived and not dragging every afternoon.
Find Your Own Thing
In the book’s chapter on Sports and Activities, I also particularly valued the author’s idea of “finding your own thing.” It’s tempting to lose myself in doing everything in the name of my children’s advancement. But one day, they’ll look at me, and wonder, why should I listen to her? What does Mom do for her own improvement?
More loosely, finding your own thing is really about having time to do your own thing or to develop yourself. This can seem like a luxury – but I think we can try to more consciously incorporate this into our lives by using time differently:
Think about your work differently and ways you can gain more skills or knowledge at your job, no matter how small the activity – while you are at work
Work on a skill or activity during your kids’ activities – if you have just an hour to kill, use some of the time to exercise, read, or practice, etc.
If you’re with the kids, try to learn whatever it is that they’re learning – the exercise of pushing your own cognitive development is important
When you have child-free time, try to avoid household chores, administrative tasks, and family errands. Use most of that time for self-improvement and self-care.
While reflecting on “finding your own thing,” I concluded that I have to protect and value my own learning and growth as a person – whether for my career or personal development. This serves multiple purposes:
I improve as a person.
I teach my children that they are not the center of the universe.
I model for them how a person can continually learn and try to better themselves. They can learn from seeing how I practice and put hard work into what I’m interested in doing.
The better I feel about how my own life and interests are progressing, the more patience, strength, and energy I will have in helping my children with their challenges.
Of course, my willpower and ability to do any of this is greatly enhanced by getting enough SLEEP. See how everything spawns from sleep? Since reading this book, I’ve been working deliberately on both sleep and self-development and I’d like to say that I’ve been calmer, more productive, and more purposeful. . . maybe even happier.
Bryan reminds us about keeping it fun and using games or related fun activities to cultivate interest or passion in a child. This is pretty common knowledge. It was his idea that less is more that was intriguing to me. Bryan suggests spending just enough time on an activity that leaves them wanting more. For example, he would stop tennis practice early for his kids, leaving them hungry for more opportunities to play another time.
It’s not intuitive, yet I think it works to some degree, even when they don’t have that intrinsic interest. Sometimes, there’s a subject matter or skill that you might feel is valuable for your child to learn, but they’re not interested. I only “let” my kids practice piano for 15 minutes a day (they don’t love the piano), but it seems to keep them from being over saturated with it. For the kids who do have a passion, a tempered approach would help to keep them from mentally or physically burning out early.
2) Hold Your Ground as a Parent
Bryan has a story about how his twins wanted to play video games like their friends so badly that they proposed a one year plan of doing daily chores in return for getting to play video games for 1 hour every Friday night. He was against the idea of any easily accessible video games or TV, but incredibly, the kids accomplished their one year goal and Bryan got them a game. Behind their father’s back, they broke their 1 hour/week promise within the month and started to prioritize game playing over sports, academics, and music. When Bryan realized, he got rid of the games forever. Sounds a bit extreme on both ends, but when I feel badgered and too tired to hold out on my kids’ constant requests, I actually think of his story to help me dig my heels in and say no to the kids. (I feel comforted that I’m not the only parent to hold off screen time and video games, ha.) For us right now, it’s NO to new toys, extra snacks, video games, more screen time, etc. I’m sure there’s a plethora of other things on which I’ll need to stand my ground as the kids get older.
3) Nurture a Second Passion
Being intentional with fostering a second passion wasn’t something that I had really thought about, but Bryan writes that it can be very valuable to a child’s development. Kids can be interested in a lot of different things and so while we may support them in all of these interests, it may actually be even better if we consciously help them to build a second passion as well (more than just an interest).
Bryan views this second passion as something a person can fall back to when things aren’t working out well in their first passion – a second passion is something that counterbalances the first passion, and maybe strengthens the other side of their brain. When his twins had a tough time with tennis, they could go to their music. He writes that the famous actress, Kaley Cuoco (known for The Big Bang Theory) would fall back to competitive tennis during difficult periods in her early acting career.
While I’m not raising any elite athletes, I definitely see the benefits of how being skilled or knowledgeable in more than one thing supports my children’s self-confidence and takes the edge off of disappointments or injuries in other sports and activities.
All in all, I’ve got these takeaways in mind as we emerge from the pandemic and are faced again with modern day’s multitude of activities to choose for the kids. It’s an opportunity to rethink as well as become more intentional with my choices and my parenting.
Feeding our children in this day and age is challenging – unhealthy food is too readily available and social norms of accommodating children can cultivate picky eaters. As parents, we’re met with a plethora of feedback from grandparents, pediatricians, parenting books, media, peers, societal norms, and social pressures and expectations.
My kids, ages and 7 and 9, are good eaters, in the sense that they eat a wide variety of foods (meats, vegetables, grains), and will try new foods. Some of this may be luck, but it’s also due to habits. There are constant “turning points” in their eating career, and we can’t take their eating habits for granted at all. Their tastes and behavior continue to evolve and I’ve sometimes had to double down on some habits that wane easily. Below are our top 10 habits (10+ actually) to raising healthy eaters.
#1 Limit Snacks
Start with limiting snacks in quantity and frequency. This is very subjective – we’ve had friends who say they are limiting snacks but I see that their “limits” are quite different than ours. The basic idea though is that snacks, whether in the morning or afternoon, reduced my kids’ appetites for regular meals.
Not over-snacking is fundamentally important to being a good eater at mealtime. It’s totally fine and good for kids to be a little hungry or thirsty. The effectiveness of any other tactics that we use at mealtimes is very dependent on this habit of limiting snacks. I have seen a friend give his child a cupcake 30 minutes before dinner, and then fight with his son to have him finish a pasta dish. My friend didn’t realize that he himself had sabotaged his son’s appetite for that dinner.
#2 Eat Only in Designated Areas
We only allow eating in the kitchen and dining room, never in any other area of the house. First, it reduces ant and sticky toy problems. Secondly, it takes away the temptation to extend snacking and meal times and distract from the eating process itself – eating is not to be multi-tasked. Originally, we started this habit from when they were mobile because we didn’t want to be chasing them, or cleaning up after them all over the house. Then, I saw other kids running around their homes after taking a few bites, and coming back to the table for now cold food, and fighting with their parents about finishing their food. I realized we had conveniently sidestepped this battle.
#3 Try Everything At Least 10 Times (not during the same meal)
I once read from one of those child nutritionist guides that people need to try something at least ten times to determine if they like that particular food or taste. Whether this is true or not, I have actually used that rule of thumb to great success. My children have expressed dislike for a lot of foods at one point or another. I tell them the rule and continue to put the foods that they dislike on their plates. My only requirement is that they have at least one bite of the food that they dislike and they can discard the rest. Over time, they surprisingly just started eating more of that food.
One of my kids hated mushrooms with a passion. Over the course of a year of seeing them on his plate regularly, he suddenly started eating them. So don’t give up. Keep making the food a part of their meals whether they eat it or not. Foods come in and out of “favor,” especially the vegetables, so if I remove them from the lineup altogether, I’ll never know when they’re coming back into favor!
# 4 Don’t Offer Alternative Foods During a Struggle
There have been times when my kids didn’t like the meal we had prepared for them, and basically looked like they were going to be missing a meal. Their grandparents have then suggested that I heat up some leftover pasta or other food that they knew the children liked. First, missing a meal here and there is okay. Second, try not to give in during those moments. All it takes is your doing this a few times, for your child to see your potential as a short order cook.
#5 Prepare a “Reliable” Food
I might sound like a mean mom, but I don’t like my kids to go hungry either. To be proactive about avoiding a struggle, try to always have one aspect of the meal that is “reliable.” Reliable as in reliably eaten. That could be something as basic as rice, pasta or bread. If you’re introducing a new grain, then try to make sure either the meat or vegetable portion is “reliable.” That way, even if they’re not fully satisfied, they won’t “starve.” Or I might even heat up the “backup leftover food” and offer it as a side dish in advance, so long as they don’t think I got up specifically to go make a special dish that only they like to eat.
# 6 Offer Yucky Foods in a Variety of Ways
We prepare the “yucky” foods in different ways: different shapes, different spices, and different sizes. Our kids hated red bell peppers. Then I chopped them up and put them in chili (which has a pretty overwhelming flavor on it’s own). They noticed them, but couldn’t taste them. Gradually, I put the chopped bell peppers in less overwhelming dishes and before I knew it, they were eating large pieces without complaint (although still without love).
#7 Have One Bite and Don’t Force Finish
We have a one bite rule. It doesn’t matter if they spit it out. The important thing is that they put it in their mouth. And the important thing is that they try it every time it’s offered.
On the flip side, we never encourage the kids to finish their meal either. We encourage them to stop eating when they feel full even if it means leaving a lot of food on the plate. We don’t say just “a few more bites.” However, we also have limited snacks and don’t prepare special meals outside of meal times (unless someone is sick), so there’s no gaming the system for extra snack food.
#8 Offer a Variety of Foods Early On and Repeatedly
It’s now commonly encouraged for parents to introduce babies to a diverse diet as a way of limiting the likelihood of developing allergies. However, this advice has multiple benefits. It helps develop a diverse palate early on. The ability to eat a variety of foods early on makes it easier for kids to get the different vitamins and minerals that their growing bodies need. To avoid FOMO, even junk food, snacks, and desserts are all sampled – just in limited quantities! The important thing is to keep offering the variety even as it is rejected. . . possibly over and over again.
#9 Control Meal Portions
Controlling how much food your children eat is contrary to most of the advice I found in baby-led weaning books, parenting books, and from our own pediatrician. All these sources advised that babies and young children know how to self-regulate and will stop eating when full. This ranks among some of the most incorrect advice I ever heard from “official” sources. Maybe this was true for breast-feeding, but absolutely wrong for milk and solids. Or perhaps this may have been true for humans prior to a world of processed foods, fiber-free food where eating bite after bite was not so easy.
Yet given the ubiquitous advice, I tried this many times, and watched as my babies, and later, children absolutely did not know their limits over and over again when eating a food they liked (usually something fried, sweet, or a processed snack). In fact, adults often don’t know their limits either when it comes to snacking or foods they like in particular, and we somehow expect children to? Allowing kids to stretch their stomachs too much on a regular basis sets them up for a cycle of overeating and getting more than their bodies need. Try to limit meals to reasonable quantities until you’ve taught your kids to reliably know how to stop eating.
#10 Educate About the Foods They’re Eating
Don’t underestimate the ability of your children to want to do right by their bodies. In past societies, food education may not have been so important, but with all the choices of foods these days, teaching kids how to navigate the food world is just as important as teaching them how to navigate cyberspace.
I wasn’t very aware about food growing up, but the trends towards understanding what we put in our bodies and our babies has really heightened my awareness around food and its impact on our health. Talk to them often about what your family is eating and why it’s good for you. Or when you’re having junk food, talk about why it’s not good for you and why you shouldn’t eat too much of it. Talk about cultural differences in foods and diets and the relative healthiness of each. Talk about the evolution of food. Talk about it all repeatedly. Eventually, it will resonate.
When we joined the food world through organized sports and school, our kids became inundated with birthday party pizza and cake, sport practices that included brown bags filled with a variety of processed/healthy/sugary snacks, and classmates who got to eat candies and chocolate milk regularly at school lunchtime. We had to teach our kids about how food and snacks are thought about differently by each family and why they might not get to eat as much of the snacks and sweets as their friends. Holding off the peer pressure to eat like their friends can be one of the toughest things to do, but it gets easier the longer you do it.
#12 Model Food Behavior
Finally, what if you’re a junk food junkie and / or a picky eater yourself? It’s extra, extra tough to raise your kids to eat differently than you do, so I had to model the food behavior I wanted them to have.
I found myself learning to be a better eater by following the habits that I was trying to model for my kids. Interestingly, my appetite for junk (formerly quite strong), waned when I removed a lot of the items from my shopping list. After I learned to pay attention to labels and ingredients, the rational side of me was put off by many of the ingredients in a lot of packaged foods that I used to eat.
Similarly, I hated lamb meat, eggplant, and brussel sprouts growing up, but in an effort to diversify and follow the behavior I was trying to encourage in my kids, we introduced it in meals periodically. Roasted brussel sprouts and spicy garlic eggplant are now in my list of favorite vegetable dishes. I’m still working on the lamb meat, one bite per meal. . .
Screen time is great! It immediately distracts my kids and gets them to stay still. They love the screen so much that they’ll watch videos in languages they don’t know just to have the right to the screen. For me, when I’m standing in line at the grocery, I can check my emails or run through my grocery list. I can leave work early and be with my kids more often since I have email and text access to stay caught up with the office. It’s so efficient, time is never wasted, and dealing with the kids could never be easier, but. . .
The unfortunate truth
The ugly truth is that I’ve seen my kids become monsters with terrible moods once I remove the screen. I’ve seen them so absorbed in the screen that they can’t see or hear anything that’s going around them. I’ve seen the red, glazed eyes after the screen is switched off.
As for myself, to be on a call with my kids around, I have to shush my kids repeatedly. Writing work emails and texts actually require a significant amount of concentration so that I have to step away from my kids or just plain ignore them since they don’t seem to understand when I tell them that I need to focus for a few moments on my phone. In those moments, I must seem obsessed with my phone and I have to completely disengage with my kids. Working while out with my kids or being “available for work” when I was with them is actually stressful and brings down the quality of my time with them.
I’m not alone
From my personal experience, I realized that the detriments of screen time outweighed its benefits in my household. Then I saw that I wasn’t alone. An article in The Atlantic pointed out that screen time was enabling “tuned out parents” and that the dangers of screen time ran both ways. The New York Times featured a piece on how even some people who work in the industry of producing smartphones and their apps are wary enough to place very strict rules around their kids’ exposure to screen time.
It starts with us! Parents on the phone while pushing their kids in the stroller. Reading phones while at sport practices or at the park and playground. We have to learn to put the screens aside as well.
At kids’ activities: I’m going to watch my child play, chat with another parent, play with my child, or do some exercises myself! I should be in the moment and pay attention when I can.
If I absolutely have to be on the phone, I’m going to explain to them why it’s so important that I need to be using my phone at that time.
During wait times with bored kids at the restaurant, grocery, or waiting room: I’m not going to use my phone as a first resort. Instead, I’ll play a game with the kids. Have a conversation. Find out about their days. Talk about something interesting. Teach them about something. What did parents do before the age of smartphones? This is an opportunity for kids to practice self-discipline and good behavior. Right, rolling your eyes? I know it’s hard work and I want to tear my hair out too sometimes, but I’ve seen parents do it well – bringing non-screen activities or chatting with kids happily.
As for the kids’ screen time, we’ve minimized this to almost none. Any screen time is supervised. Other parents will sometimes tell me that their kids spend all their time on the iPad or watching TV and that nothing else will satisfy them while at home since they began allowing screen time. As I mentioned earlier, I found watching Netflix videos, playing video games, and using other phones/tablets to be a slippery slope in my household. Kids were inevitably unhappy when the screen time ended. Their brains and eyes seem fried from the other world that they had been sucked into and their moods were just plain nasty. It happened every time.
So we removed anything that resembled routine screen time. It was hard at first but then they eventually found other things to do. And we had less tantrums and bad moods to deal with too! As they get into their teens, though, this probably becomes even trickier, but it is worth it to me.