Parenthood is full of challenges, and self-doubt is the bitter pill we parents swallow daily. I cannot tell you how many times I have come out of an interaction with my son thinking "Oh my God, I have ruined him!!!" Then I imagine all of the horrible catastrophes he will face throughout his life because I failed to give him the validation, reassurance, or guidance that he needed in a given situation.
While many of us may feel that parenting our children is the most important job we will ever do, few of us trust ourselves to parent successfully. Rarely do we feel like we've gotten it "right," and it is all too easy to fall into the parenting trap of "not good enough." Perhaps we are plagued by "mom guilt," "single-parent guilt," "foster-parent guilt," or general "imposter syndrome."
Feelings of doubt, guilt, and shame are overly abundant as we strive to be perfect parents. How can we create happiness amidst all this noise? Furthermore, how can we inspire and nurture happiness in our children? In this article, we take those beginning steps toward happy parenting by learning to recognize and celebrate all of our small victories!
A Bad Moment Doth Not Make a Bad Parent... Unless You Let It
Let's start with a basic fact. There are no perfect parents. We all make mistakes and errors in judgment. Yet, what are our mistakes but drops in the ocean of time, "bad moments" in the landscape of a good day?
Let me tell you about myself:
I am a good mom. I am a good mom who has bad moments. This was not always the case. Only a year ago, I was in a place mentally where compassion for myself was in short supply, and I subsequently lacked in patience and sympathy for others. I was allowing my bad moments to define me, and those moments were growing into days and sometimes weeks of irritability, lack of energy and general negativity.
When I realized that I was becoming my "bad moments" by allowing them free rein in my life, I also began to see how this was affecting my son and our relationship. At the age of six, my son couldn't understand why I was grumpy so often, and he wasn't sure when or how he had contributed to my bad mood. He cycled through reactional behaviors such as crying and yelling and distancing behaviors such as isolating and excessive TV watching. He didn't seem as joyful as I thought he deserved to be, and I saw that the roots of it were growing out of me.
This was not the choice I wanted to make for my child and my family, so I decided to start something new. Now, I begin each morning with mindfulness and gratitude. I practice positive perspective taking and cognitive reframing throughout my day. It sounds almost generic in its simplicity, but in less than a few months, I went from being a good mom who has bad days.. and bad weeks.. and negative thoughts.. and negative feelings.. and a downward trending relationship with EVERYONE in my life to simply a good mom who has bad moments.
I am PROUD to be a good mom who has bad moments because when we choose to let our "bad" moments be just moments in an otherwise colorful and vibrant day, we free ourselves AND our children from the burden of absolving us from our mistakes.
Take a second right now to recognize and acknowledge that ALL of your moments won't be shining. ALL of your responses and reactions won't be gracious. ALL of your good intentions won't be perfectly honored no matter how hard you try. Make a choice to acknowledge a "bad moment," forgive yourself, and then move on. Now you can celebrate your choice and claim this "small" victory!
The Power of "YES!"
Recently, I read that the average child hears the word "Yes" approximately 8,000 times before five years of age and the word "No" on average 40,000 times by the same age! Take a moment and let that digest. In their earliest years, our children hear the word "No" five times more often than the word "Yes" ("The Slight Edge" by Jeff Olson). Wow.
Though I only read this a couple of weeks back, I think I understood the truth of it seven years ago when my son was an infant. I remember telling my husband that I didn't want to be a "NO" parent. I looked around me at a world of disconnected parents interacting with their children through technological buffers, and I heard one word repeatedly. I knew that I didn't want this to be the word most often heard by our son.
The word "No" is a crucial tool for parents for the safety and education of children, but like any tool, when it is overused, it loses its effectiveness. I wanted us to be deliberate in choosing our "No"s so that our son would learn the value of this word.
Conversely, there is another word we can be deliberate about: "Yes!" I urge you not to under-estimate the value of the word "yes." To a child, "Yes" sounds like acceptance, and it sounds like love. I am not implying that we should respond affirmatively to every request our child makes (another piece of candy, another episode of TV, ice cream before dinner), and heaven knows I am guilty of this through and through. However, I think we can ask ourselves a few questions when responding to our children's requests:
When I can confidently answer "Yes" to each of these questions, I aim to let my yes's run freely, because I want my relationship with my son to be defined by the things I say "yes" to.
It can be a challenge to respond affirmatively to your child when you feel exhausted, cranky, and stressed. Yet, be assured that there is something so liberating about the word "yes,.." and it actually gets easier with practice!
Today, you can challenge yourself to say "yes" to one simple request you might normally let slip by, whether it's a quick game of tag or letting your kids help pick dinner. You and your children will feel empowered by this simple choice, and you can celebrate the satisfaction of another small victory!
Happy Words, Happy Thoughts
Anyone who can write 500 words about how great a three-letter affirmation is must feel very strongly about the power of words. It is true. The words we choose are so significant. A 2015 study in positive psychology by Martin Seligman and colleagues examined the relationship between language used on Twitter and risk of artherosclerotic heart disease (AHD). The researchers concluded that negative language ("annoyed," "bored," "tired," "pissed") was significantly correlated with increased mortality risk from AHD. Meanwhile, positive language ("strength," "greatness," "friends," "wonderful") had a protective function (negatively correlated) against AHD mortality risk.
So what does this mean? The words that we choose in our daily lives are predictive of not only our mental health, but our physical health also! Whoa. Most of us are familiar with the negative effects of chronic stress on our bodies, so it may not come as a surprise that generalized negativity is associated with serious health problems. Yet, I think it is incredible to discover that the very language we use to express, describe, and communicate how we are feeling is tied to incidence of heart disease.
Historically, I have been a catastrophizer, perpetually focused on everything that has gone wrong and could potentially go wrong. I will attest that this mentality has been burdensome and deleterious to my health. Now I wonder, if something as seemingly simple as our choice of words can have such a drastic connection to our own health, how might these same words be impacting our children's happiness, disposition, outlook, and even worldview?
So.. I tried to put this into practice, and I totally went off the deep end with it. My 7-year-old son was rolling his eyes at me continually as I exclaimed about how beautiful the blue sky is, how refreshing the cool autumn breeze is, and how glorious the world around us is. I was totally obnoxious in my use of positive emotion words, and my kid was quick to let me know exactly how annoying I was being. However, I noticed that even as he rolled his eyes, he was laughing at my goofiness, and he seemed lighter and uplifted by the decreased focus on the negative factors around us!
Each day, I try to challenge myself to reframe one negative perception for myself and my kid. When he doesn't want to do his homework, I might say "I am so glad that your teachers care so much about you that they want to help your brain grow and develop!" When he wants to eat pizza for the fifth night in a row, I might say "I think it's awesome that we have so many different kinds of food that we can eat! Let's have pizza on ____ (pick a night) as a special reward for trying new food!"
A wonderful thing happens when you commit to using positive language: positive thinking follows. When we commit to communicating with positive words, we begin building a reciprocal pathway in our brain which reinforces our commitment through increased positive thoughts and emotions. As you share this positivity with your children, you can almost see that pathway developing in their brains also.
Try to pick one negative perception or thought to reframe for yourself and your children today. Over time, your children will learn to reframe their experiences and perceptions independently, but it begins with you claiming one small victory right now. I think you will quickly discover that positive parenting is, definitively, the only route to happy parenting!
As humans, as parents, we are fallible. We will make mistakes, and more often than we like, we will make repeat mistakes. When we recognize our failures, we learn to overcome them and become stronger, fuller, happier individuals. As we celebrate each moment with our children, each moment is sure to be victorious! Today, I challenge you to become, not a better parent, but a happier parent. Below are some excellent resources if you would like a little extra guidance along the way.
I wish you all very happy parenting!