Life Health & Wellbeing

Wednesday 11 December 2019

Dr David Coleman: How to be a better parent

It's hard to overhaul your entire lifestyle, says psychologist David Coleman. So why not tweak some things instead, which will benefit the entire family? Here are 10 ways...

Make the most of the time you eat together
Make the most of the time you eat together

You can't beat January. Finally the winter feels like it is on the turn, with our days getting imperceptibly longer again. Christmas, with all of its indulgence and excess, is over and the cleaner, leaner and sharper month of January beckons us towards the spring and the hope for the new year.

We can all be tempted to try to do something new in January. How many lists of resolutions have you and your family created? Are you exhausted by the thought of the changes you are about to unleash on yourself or your loved ones?

I will exercise more. I will say "no" more. I will not be a slave to the rest of the family and act like a skivvy to their demands and expectations. I will floss every day. I will drink less alcohol. I will avoid procrastination (well…maybe later). I will follow through on all my resolutions.

In some ways it's daunting to think about making changes. They can sometimes be complicated to achieve. They require energy and effort to maintain. They are susceptible to relapse, which can often dampen our resolve to keep trying to make things better or different.

So, knowing that it's hard to change things, I thought I'd give you my list of 10 things that you might want to tweak, in terms of your parenting, rather than having to face a major overhaul of your parenting style. The good news is that you are probably already doing most of them, to some degree, and any of the 10 tweaks will make a big difference to your children.

1 Pick your battles

All of us are willing to do battle with our children and their misbehaviour. The majority of children misbehave regularly because, like all humans, they are bound to make mistakes. But, many of us make the mistake, ourselves, of feeling like we have to fight on every front, responding to every incident where they step out of line.

But we don't have to respond to every incident. So take some pressure off yourself and decide which are the important rules to uphold in your family. Focus on things like no hitting, no cursing, no disrespect. For the rest, see if you can let it slide, correcting the mistakes your children make, but not feeling like you have to punish them all.

2 Increase the level of responsibility your children take

This is a win-win for most families. Children need opportunities to act responsibly, but yet sometimes we deny them the chance. Many parents do things like leave out the school uniforms the night before, or lift the school bags out of the hall and into the bedrooms, or empty the dishwasher in preference to arguing over whose turn it is. But by doing too much for your children you actually do them a disservice. By involving them in household chores, or letting them walk to the local shop, you give them the chance to grow and develop, while taking some of your own workload off.

3 Become specific in your praise of your children

You may have heard the phrase, "praise in public and punish in private". It is a useful mantra to remember. Most of us will praise our children, hoping that they will see that we appreciate and value whatever it was that they just did. But, in order to make the praise stick, comment specifically about the behaviour you just witnessed.

So, if your son managed to wait while you were on the phone, tell him: "You waited without interrupting me. That helped me out since I got to sort things out on the phone and now I have time to help you. Thanks for waiting."

4 Tell everyone what your basic parenting approach is

Most of us rely on other people to mind our children. But how often are we explicit about the way that we want them minded? Children find it much easier when the adults around them treat them in a consistent way. So tell your childminder, your own mum, your sister, your babysitter or whoever, what your values are and what standards you want to rear your children by.

If you are all dealing with the children in the same way, then your children will learn what is expected of them, more easily.

5 Respect the differences in parenting styles

There is an irony to the fact that my very next tip is to suggest that acknowledging the differences in approach between you and your partner, particularly, is also helpful.

It is rare that parents agree, all the time, about how to deal with different situations and behaviours that our children engage in. But, it never helps to criticise and argue with another's approach in front of the children.

Publicly criticising each other diminishes your authority and can undermine it entirely on occasion. So, accept that you might do things differently, and if your differences cause a big problem, take a deep breath, allow the situation to continue and then discuss it later, with a view to finding more balance the next time.

6 Enjoy the meals you eat together

Eating together, in my experience, is something that most families try to prioritise. So, rather than encouraging you to eat more meals together, focus on enjoying the meals you do get to share.

So that might mean taking pressure off your children "having" to eat certain foods or certain amounts of food. It might mean adding a round of gratitude to the conversation, where everyone gets to say something that they were grateful for during the day.

It might seem a bit corny, but appreciating the good things that come our way really adds to our sense of positivity.

7 Encourage your children to notice the good things about themselves

Earlier on I suggested that you become specific in your praise of your children. In terms of their self-esteem it is even more powerful if they can get to a point of acknowledging and accepting the good things about themselves.

So in addition to, perhaps, commenting on how proud you are of an achievement of theirs, suggest to them that they must feel so proud of themselves.

For example, you might say: "you must feel so proud of all the hard work you put in to your running; now you've got a medal." This small tweak encourages them to recognise their own positive qualities and builds self-esteem.

8 Get out of the house regularly and often

We hear lots about exercise and how good it is for children. Most of us try to structure some exercise for our kids. But, any exercise is good and children are more likely to run, jump, climb, hop and swing when they are outdoors. In any weather! Fresh air and the outdoors can also be a great pressure release valve when the going gets tough indoors.

9 Let your children solve more of their own problems

Parents fall into a couple of habits in this realm. Either we plan ahead so much, engineering situations and people, such that our children never encounter real problems, or we rush in to solve any problems because it is expedient to do so.

But, children need to be faced with problems and they need to learn to rely on their own resources to solve those problems. Otherwise they will miss out on a skill for later life. So, empathise with their struggle but leave them to it more often than not.

10 Remember to say 'I love you' to your children

And, more importantly, show it too. We can show children we love them by doing all of the things I've suggested above and by throwing in some hugs, kisses and cuddles.

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