This past week, I read an article in the New York Times titled, "The Relentlessness of Modern Parenting." It describes how over the past couple generations, parents have greatly increased the demands they place on themselves when it comes to raising their kids. As a mother of three children, this rings very true. I remember growing up in the 80s, my mom would push me out the door to play outside in the yard and I'd find my way back before dinner. I am certainly part of the new generation of parents that go overboard with themed Pinterest-perfect birthday parties and spends almost all my spare time engaging them in crafts and activities. While our kids certainly benefit from this kind of child-centered attention, as parents, we run the risk of stressing ourselves, and thereby our kids, out.
What is stress?
Most think it's running late, or an overdue bill, or a when kids throw their dinner on the floor. These are demands, not stresses. Stress is our reaction if we don't have the energy to interact with the demand. Our bodies were never designed to handle what modern life puts us through. By the time we become old enough to have a child, most of us have physiologies completely saturated with stress and very little adaptation energy left to deal with new demands.
The cost of adding parenting demands
When we set incredibly high expectations as parents, and place greater and greater demands on ourselves, we start scraping the bottom of our bank of adaptation energy. When that happens, we become snappy, exhausted and easily frustrated–all qualities that make parenting very challenging.
Kids pick up on this
No one ever suffers in isolation and this is especially true in a family unit. If one person in the house is having a stress attack, it invariably will affect everyone else. I've seen this happen in my own home even with really young ones. The kids might be in a fine mood. My husband will come in from work impatient after having a bad day and suddenly the girls are acting up and whining out of nowhere. Even if you can't change your bad mood, being conscious of this effect can help curb it.
Too many demands on kids
High-achieving kids especially can learn to place too many demands on themselves. I remember I did this as a teenager. My day started at 7:20 in the morning with school, I was in sports right after, then would go straight to dance rehearsals. I didn't start my homework until 10pm most nights but still put pressure on myself to get straight A's and it took its toll. Some breathing room never hurt a kid. Saying no to an activity, spending a school break at home, making room for unstructured time–these can all be ways to create space between demands. This year, we took the girls out of their afternoon ballet classes. It didn't seem like a big deal, but it has made a huge difference in how much more relaxed the weekdays feel.
What you can do
A friend of mine once told me when I was pregnant with my first child, "What kids need are happy parents who love them and to know they are loved." I have come back to this piece of advice over and over because it is so easy to get caught up in parenting guilt. The first thing to do is let yourself off the hook. Kids are incredibly adaptable and will still turn out great even if they watch TV sometimes or miss making the swim team by the second grade or don't eat all organic food.
Most importantly, address your own stress. Cut demands from your life and turn your attention on your health. Ideally, take up meditation. More than any other practice, it lets your body rest deeply enough to release stored stresses and bank up a reserve of adaptation energy. Then, no matter what life (or your kids) throw at you, you can respond without having a stress reaction.
Kids are like plants and you are their sun. If you radiate, they will grow healthy and happy. Little else is needed.
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