Let’s face it. We are all far too busy. Adding ambitious New Year’s resolutions to a lengthy to-do list probably isn’t going to get us very far in 2024. What if, instead of adding more to our plates, we resolved to remove some things? When it comes to parenting, less is often more. Breaking out of established patterns always requires a bit of effort. But dropping time-consuming and unproductive parenting practices will avoid an enormous amount of trouble in a relatively short time. Here are seven suggestions for becoming a more effective parent by eliminating unnecessary and unhelpful habits.
1. Stop doing for children what they can do for themselves.
Babies and toddlers require a lot of hands-on care. As children grow, their parents are often the last to recognize that they are ready and eager to do more for themselves. While rushing through the day, it may feel quicker and easier to do things for them. But children are hard-wired for independence and remaining too involved in their business initially results in frustrated cries of “Me do it!” and eventually undermines kids’ self-confidence. When your child seems interested in managing a task independently, let them try. If it seems beyond their capability, share some secret “tips” or “tricks” rather than lecturing them on how it’s done. Not sure what tasks are age-appropriate? You can find many online lists of self-care tasks categorized by age.
Keep in mind: Kids will sometimes pretend to be incapable as a means of stalling or gaining attention, especially when faced with something they don’t want to do. If that happens, use humor to keep things moving forward. Suggest that the two of you partner on the task. Sing a song about the steps involved. Make it a game – set a timer and join them in racing against the clock. Having fun together is usually the quickest route to your destination.
2. Set fewer limits.
Setting a limit is easy. Upholding it is hard. Consistency is where the difficulty comes in. If a parent has caved in the past, children suspect that we may cave again. They test limits to make sure the boundary is firm and not optional or negotiable. Give yourself a break and only work on a couple of limits at a time. What matters most to you? A consistent bedtime? Keeping their room tidy? Leaving the playground when it’s time to go? After you decide on a priority or two, establish a reasonable limit in advance. “Splashing in the bathtub gets the floor wet. If that happens again, bath time will be over, and I will show you how to clean the floor.” If the child tests the limit, you can restate it kindly in a few words (“Time to clean the floor”) and then follow through with action.
3. Talk less.
When parents do too much explaining, complaining and reminding, we begin to sound like the adults in a Peanuts cartoon. “mwa mwa mwa mwa.” Children stop listening and we feel exasperated. Actions speak louder than words – and often get better results. I learned this when I had to communicate with my son nonverbally during a bout of laryngitis. When it was time to transition from one activity to another, I got down on his level, put a hand on his shoulder, made eye contact, smiled and gestured in the direction we needed to go. Then I started walking. To my astonishment, he came along. When parents act with the conviction that children will comply, they very often do. In her book Duct Tape Parenting, parent educator Vicki Hoefle wrote about taping her mouth shut to see if she could be more effective with less talking. Spoiler alert: it worked.
4. Never force kids to eat.
Remember, children are hardwired for independence. The more we try to micromanage their personal business, the less they will comply. Mealtimes often devolve into power struggles as a result. After a while, it is no longer about the food: it is about the child asserting autonomy over their own body. And isn’t that what we want to encourage? When parents loosen their control, children generally become less resistant. If not, it could be that a sensory issue – such as an aversion to particular tastes or textures – prevents your child from tolerating certain foods. The Ellyn Satter Institute provides clear guidance on the division of responsibility between parents and children when it comes to eating. If you and your child have been battling over food for some time, try breaking the cycle of unpleasant meals at the table. Lay a blanket on the floor and have an indoor picnic. Put out a plate of sliced carrots, broccoli and tomatoes before dinner and call it hors d’oeuvres. Do they hate fruit? Ask for help washing blueberries or grapes in a colander. Pique their interest by saying, “You can try a few, but please don’t eat them all.” Most importantly, stop worrying about the dire consequences of your youngster’s eating preferences. My brother-in-law ate only macaroni and cheese for most of his childhood. He is now a six-foot-tall athlete who loves to cook.
5. Skip the nightly bath sometimes.
Unless the routine helps your child transition to bedtime or they are dirty and sweaty after an active day, there is no need to make kids squeaky clean on a nightly basis. When children see bath time as their last chance to connect with parents, they will often find ways to drag it out as long as possible. Instead of a bath, try substituting “Special Time.” Twenty minutes of one-on-one, child-directed interaction can help satisfy their need to have a parent’s high-quality, undivided attention. It can fill them with the sense of love and belonging that gets them through the night. You have limited time together, so use it in ways that matter most to your child.
6. Hang up your superhero cape.
It is painful for parents to watch their children struggle. They get frustrated buttoning a coat or working a toy and we rush to the rescue. As our children get older, we may find ourselves frequently racing to school with forgotten lunches or constantly nagging about homework. When we act as if children are incapable of coping with life’s challenges, they believe us. Our “help” can stand in the way of the resilience and resourcefulness they need to thrive. It also interferes with their drive for independence. When my son was in preschool, he tried to play with some slightly older kids on a playground. They were not very nice, and I swooped in to take his side. I’ll never forget how angry he was – not at the other boys, but at me for denying him the chance to handle the situation himself. When you see your child struggling, hold back a bit and see if they can figure things out for themselves. Children gain confidence by developing competence.
7. Eliminate unnecessary frustrations.
If you find yourself dealing with the same irritating situation on a regular basis, try banishing the source of the trouble. Do your kids constantly beg for cookies or other treats between meals? Store them out of sight or don’t bring them into the house at all. Removing these temptations will spare you unnecessary reminding, pleading and scolding. Does your active toddler or preschooler squirm and fuss when seated for extended periods of time? Take a temporary break from restaurants and other sedentary activities until they are developmentally capable of sitting still. Does it drive you crazy that your kids are rough with their toys or won’t clean up after playing? Try putting away all but a few and rotate them periodically. Children are easily overwhelmed by too much “stuff.” Having fewer options will encourage them to make more imaginative use of what they have. It will also be easier for them to keep their things in order. Adopting these seven New Year’s resolutions will save time, effort and frustration in 2024. Even more importantly, this less-is-more approach will foster greater cooperation, independence and self-confidence in our children. Whatever initial effort may be required to simplify our parenting habits, we will be compensated many times over by reducing parental stress, bolstering children’s competence and improving family dynamics.