A century ago, parenting wasn’t a verb. Now, to “parent” often means you gear your life around your children, you spend energy, time and money to enrich them, and you never let them out of your sight. The trouble is, over-parenting not only exhausts parents, it also weakens relationships and the family unit—it just doesn’t do kids any good.
Many parents are aware that constantly monitoring, pushing and lavishing excessive praise can hurt children. But what’s the alternative? How else can we ensure that children have the right stuff to cope with their futures?
The answer might surprise you. Instead of shining a spotlight on children and striving to make them better, focus on making the whole family better.
Think of your family as a “co-op.” Run the family together and see it as an enterprise that will give your children lifelong skills. Adults will still be the “directors” who guide and set policy, but children are also responsible for doing their part to help the family thrive. Here are some ideas that can help you shift your focus:
1. Nurture a family consciousness. Schedule 15-minute weekly check-ins to discuss family business over a dish of ice cream or a bowl of popcorn. Talk about what you’re like as a family. Perhaps compare yourselves to families you see on TV. What’s good about us? What might we improve? What’s funny about us? What’s important? Are we spending enough time as a family? End the discussion with a plan to do something together at least once a week.
2. Run the household as a team. When children participate and problem-solve to the best of their age and ability, they become confident and capable—if you let them. Give your 2-year-old lightweight items to carry to the garage. Show your 7-year-old how the washing machine works. When your 10-year-old loses a button, give him a needle and thread. And then, step back. Resist the urge to micro-manage. Show them that you’re there to help, but let them each do the task their way—even if it means they will make mistakes or fail altogether.
3. Have adult conversations in front of the kids. At the dinner table or in the car, talk about your own day, too. Although you might have a job that your child doesn’t understand or do work you consider boring, like housework, you can still talk about the things that help get you through the day, like patience, organization, a good head for numbers, a sense of direction, and people skills. This gives kids an understanding of how adults handle responsibility and relationships and, just as important, teaches them how to listen and ask questions.
4. Make saving and spending a family affair. Many parents withhold financial information rationalizing that children won’t understand or that it’s none of their business. But money, along with time and energy, is a family resource. Why shouldn’t kids be part of that dialogue? Sit down with everyone and imagine that you’ve earned a chunk of cash—it could $50 or $500 or $5,000. Whichever amount you choose, help them understand how many days, weeks or years it might take to save that much. Discuss how you as a family might spend it. Weigh various options and decide what’s valuable to your family. Is the item or activity needed or wanted? Then, tackle real spending. For example, you might make decisions about a family vacation based on everyone’s input about last year’s.
5. Establish gadget-free zones and times. Too much screen time cuts into our relationships. Instead of berating the kids for their habits, power down and devote a family check-in to “tech consciousness.” Ask yourselves how much and how often do phones, tablets, and computers interrupt conversation or quash it altogether? Talk about how not looking up from our machines makes the other person feel. Make decisions together: Should electronics be left out of bedroom? What’s acceptable at the dinner table? In the car? When the TV is on or music is playing? The answers may differ, but kids who help make ground rules are more likely to honor them. They might even surprise you with more stringent limits than even you’d impose.
Read more about running your family like a co-op in Family Whispering: The Baby Whisperer’s Commonsense Strategies for Communicating and Connecting with the People You Love and Making Your Whole Family Stronger.