As a teacher, I've had the chance to observe and learn from many parents over the years. I've been struck repeatedly by how happy, positive and empowered some of them are, even in difficult times. But there are also those who are stressed and often don't seem to enjoy parenting - the ones who left me with the impression they are barely hanging on.
I've been on both sides, and I suspect most of us go back and forth between these extremes.
I have tried to learn from the parents who remain positive, empowered and reasonably serene. Here are strategies for an easier and more empowered parenting existence, based on watching happy parents and trying their techniques.
Parent from wisdom, not fear
That phrase come from Tim Elmore, who notes that a great deal of parenting behaviour stems from fear. We might fear other people, our own inexperience and imperfections, or any number of terrible things that could befall our children.
Elmore suggests consciously replacing fear with wisdom. He talks about it in the context of modelling this for our kids, but I find the process helpful for parents, as well. We can't simply wish away fear or guilt. But we can resist acting on those feelings. I've noticed that acting on feelings of fear or guilt increases their hold on me, while resisting them minimises it.
Find a mentor
Seek guidance from someone who can help you determine what battles need to be fought and when you can let things go a bit. Having a mentor also allows you to benefit from someone else's mistakes and hard-learned lessons. You can find mentors in your neighborhood, at work, at schools or through religious communities.
Keep in mind, though, that anyone who has enough experience to help you will likely be older and may see the world in fundamentally different ways. That's okay. You don't have to do everything they suggest. Even if you disagree, they can still give you useful perspective and advice.
These days, we have quick access to enormous amounts of information from experts, which can be helpful, but at times it's paralysing. I worry that it creates an expectation that every problem has a clearly defined "right" answer that someone else knows. Even experts struggle with their children. Parenting is not an exact science, it's more a process of using specific strategies at specific times to get specific outcomes.
Instead of following a road map, successful parents engage their children based on their experience, judgment and values. They are willing to go against the grain of what everyone else is doing and endure hard battles for long-term gain. They say no when they need to. When they make mistakes, they regroup and try something else. And if you get something wrong, use it as an opportunity to model for your child how to fix mistakes.
Whether it's discussing another parent, a teacher or a child's peer, gossip has a negative effect on those who engage in it. That is true whether it's in person or via text chains.
Gossiping creates an environment that does not allow for mistakes, change, or growth - including our own. It also habituates us to look for the bad and focuses our attention on things we cannot control (other people's choices) instead of what we can control (our choices). That creates a background swirl of anxiety.
Try a social media fast
We've heard about the power of physically decluttering. A few years ago, I tried decluttering my social media considerably, and it changed my life. It also greatly enhanced my family relationships. Fasting gave me the clarity to see how I could better align social media use with my priorities and values.
Allow your child to experience consequences
It's liberating when we stop trying to manage and mitigate the consequences of our child's actions and focus instead on coaching them through challenges and helping them learn from the experience. It helps us focus on what we can control, and it empowers our children, because failure, difficulty and obstacles are what create and hone the skills and abilities they need to be successful as adults.
Declutter your child's schedule
We live in a time of unprecedented opportunities for kids. But too much of a good thing can be a problem, and being overscheduled can have negative consequences for families and children.
A few years ago, feeling very stretched and stressed, my wife and I limited our children to one after-school activity per season. It's hard to overstate the difference this made. I'm not proposing that specific solution for everyone. But it is refreshing to make choices about what we want to do, rather than doing what a schedule dictates.
How much non-structured, non-adult-led time does your child have? Do they participate in an activity because it is fun, or because you are trying to build a résumé, position them for a scholarship or help them reach other future goals? Is any of this likely to matter in 20 years?
Do something you enjoy
Finding small things to do for ourselves can have a big impact. I once heard an award-winning author discuss how she used her daughter's bath time to eke out a few minutes of writing. Sometimes she could write only a sentence. She later realised this was when she learned to write a single, perfect sentence. Listening to recorded books, enjoying a favourite beverage, streaming a show or podcast while preparing meals - there are a lot of ways to take care of yourself.
It's easy, in the press of all we have to do, to lose sight of the need to connect with our children, but building those relationships can help prevent or mitigate any number of serious problems. We should also seek connection with other parents. I have seen apparently huge, almost intractable problems solved very quickly when parents picked up the phone and talked with one another. Host a social gathering for other parents, or join a parent association, community or religious group, or a recreation league.
Family memories are a currency we share with our children, something that cannot be dimmed or taken away. They can bring laughter and joy, drawing us together. My biggest test now for whether something is worth our time, effort and money is asking whether it will provide memories later on. If the answer is yes, I will almost always do it, no matter the cost.
Do something old-school
A lot of the things we have evolved away from have a positive impact on my soul: handwriting a thank-you note, reading a paper book, dressing up, using nice china for a meal, having a dinner party, baking from scratch, ballroom dancing, gardening. We tend to focus on our current lifestyle and modern conveniences, but our ancestors had 10s of thousands of years of living without all the resources we have. Their mores, customs and answers to life's questions may not be a perfect match with what we value now, but they can still teach us something.
Act instead of worrying
Channel your fear, worry, or outrage into action. History often turns on remarkably small hinges and the actions of ordinary people at the right time. If nothing else, at least you will be doing something. And that can help bring peace and happiness.