(From Chip Dodd’s & Stephen James’ upcoming book on parenting—Giraffes on Ice, est. pub. 2017)
Sometimes parenting feels like we are trying to thread a needle while wearing mittens.
By design, parenting is paradoxical and is wrought with challenges.
Our children simultaneously…
• need our assurance and test us,
• learn from us and teach us,
• confuse us and remind us of what it was like for us in our youth,
• demand increasing amounts of freedom and desire security, and
• give us hope and scare us about the future at the same time.
For even the most committed and enlightened parent, by the time you have figured out what works, kids move on from one phase and grow into the next one. We are constantly playing catchup. There are occasions as a parent when it feels like playing the game, “Sorry”—you keep getting sent back to start.
When we begin to accept that the best we get as parents is like giraffes running on ice, we can begin to offer what our children really need from us—heartfelt relationship.
Here are eight principles and eight practices to encourage and equip you for the task at hand.
Parents and kids aren’t so different. Whether you are 8 or 80 years old, you were created for the same thing—to live fully in relationship. At the core of all people is a heart that desires to be loved and needs to belong and matter. Being delighted in can make a real difference in the quality of relationship. Being enjoyed is not a learned behavior, we are wired for it.
Practice 1: Make sustained eye contact and smile at your child at least three times a day.
You can’t give what you don’t have. Most of us are running around in our lives mindlessly and distressed. Our schedules are packed with so many things that we don’t really show up and enjoy anything. We are running on fumes.
Practice 2: Do at least one intentional thing today to practice self-care.
There are no vacation days as a parent and no over-time pay for it either. There is one guarantee if you desire to parent well: Your children will break your heart time and time again.
Practice 3: Embrace the pain. Accepting that heartache is a fundamental part of parenting and will ironically help us bare it better.
No relationship (not even marriage) will expose the flaws in your game and wounds in your past like being a parent.
Practice 4: Surrender to the process and let it teach you. Ask yourself, “What am I learning about myself as a person as I parent? How do I need to respond to this knowledge?”
Where you come from says a lot about your parenting. How directly we have faced our own stories and dealt with the heartache of our past is probably the #1 indication of what kind of parent you are. What you try to suppress and avoid will define your life.
Practice 5: Get honest with yourself and another. Wisdom comes from knowing you have blind spots. Do you have someone in your life that can help you explore your story, care for the wounds of your past, and invite you to move on?
One major mistake many of us make as parents is that we believe we need to have all the answers to all the questions. It’s frightening to realize that much of what our kids need we don’t possess. It’s also freeing. If given permission, children know really well how to be themselves. One of our jobs as parents is to help them develop the inner compass that will guide their own lives.
Practice 6: Ask better questions. Instead of asking “Why” so much, begin your questions with “How”, “What”, and “When”. How can I help you today? How do I/you feel when . . . ? What do I/you need? What does this experience remind you/me of? When else have you/I experienced this?
Once we have children, many of us will stop pursuing our own passions, interests, and dreams. Without a dream to pursue, our lives become monotonous and stale, our passions wain, and our standards compromise.
Practice 7: Make your life a thick book. If you want your children to live fully, you have to keep living fully too and continue to take risks, cultivate your passions, and have dreams.
We have a choice as parents to make every day. We can have kids of compliance or kids of heart. Most often as parents we focus on immediate outcomes and not long-term results.
Practice 8: Practice longtail parenting. This is our phrase that means the large number of small encounters with your child make much more of an impact than the small number of big things. While that big conflict you had with your teenager matters, it doesn’t nearly matter as much as the 1,500 times you have dropped them off at school and picked them up from a friend’s house.
Stay tuned for more blog posts about each of these principles and practices.
Stephen James, MA, LPC-MHSP, NCC, is the Executive Director of Sage Hill Counseling in Nashville, TN. He is also a best-selling author of five books, including Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys. He is active in training other mental health professionals as well as to speaking to audiences around the country on the topics of living fully, servant leadership, family relationships, and spiritual authenticity.