One of the first things I learned in medical school is that medicine is, indeed, an art—not a science.
So is parenting.
This is something I learned long after becoming a pediatrician, but shortly after becoming a parent. Having grown up in a home with a mother who is truly an artist (the paint-to-canvas kind), and my own natural proclivity for all things science, the marriage of science and art was an easy one for me to embrace.
Both parenting and doctoring require life-long learning. I’ve been a doctor for 11 years and a parent for only five, and every day I learn something new about both.
Here are 10 of the most important lessons I’ve learned so far.
1. It’s important to be present.
Smart phones, iPads, laptops have permeated our worlds. They can enhance our lives, making it easier to reach friends and family across the globe, making it possible to work from the comfort of our own home and to call teenage children when they are out…. But these devices can also diminish our quality of life and undermine our intent to connect.
We must disconnect in order to connect with our children. This can be quite challenging, but I aim to find time each day to turn my phone off, put it in another room or just vow not to check it for some period of time. Then I try to forget about it and be present with my children. Try this. I dare you.
2. Each child is different.
Your child will sleep. And eat. And walk. And stop sucking their thumb. And use the potty. Child growth and development is a process. And it is not a competition.
Try not to compare your child’s development with your friend’s children, or even with your other children. Each child is unique in his or her own way and will follow their own unique trajectory for physical and psychological growth. Relish it.
3. Sometimes patience is the best medicine.
Whether it is an ear infection, a stomach bug, potty training or learning to walk – sometimes you just have to wait. We can find ways to make our child feel more comfortable, but there is not always a medicine to “fix” what is broken or speed up what seems slow. I know how hard it is to see my own children uncomfortable—whether it is a fever and runny nose from a winter cold or vomiting from a stomach virus.
Occasionally, during these times, (when I am thinking more like a mother and less like a doctor), I, too, will seek reassurance. I call my pediatrician friends and ask them to help me remember that all is progressing normally and to remind me there is, indeed, nothing more to “do” other than to provide comfort and love. (Don’t undervalue these remedies!)
The human body is an incredible machine and children are resilient. Sometimes the prescription from your doctor is to just wait. So in a world where we expect immediacy from most everything—make room for patience.
4. Good habits start early.
From good sleep and healthy eating, to manners and values: Lay the foundations as soon as possible and build on them. A patient of mine once asked me “at what age should you teach manners?” The answer is from day #1!
Children model adult behavior. Treat your spouse with kindness and respect, and your children will naturally learn to treat their friends (and you) the same way. Don’t swear at home unless you want your 3-year-old swearing too. Say your own pleases and thank yous, and your children will learn that vocabulary from you the same way they learn Mama, Dada, car, house, cookie and other words.
Even nonverbal children can learn please and thank you with hand gestures or sign language. Remember you are the most influential model for your children.
5. Enjoy the moments.
Especially the small ones. Even the embarrassing ones. Those moments are beautiful and unique. Of course we oogle and applaud over a child’s first step, or first word. But often it’s the smaller moments that can really tug at our heartstrings—if we just take the time to soak it in.
Some of those moments for me are listening to my boys sing in the car. Watching them stop to pick up a leaf on the street then delight in it’s beauty. Their amazement as a firefly flickers on and off in in their hands. The feeling of their arms squeezing me a hug goodnight. Watching them willingly share a favorite toy without being prodded to do so. Hearing their laughter. Reading them books. Listening to their questions.
These small moments are what add the beauty and color to life. Don’t take these moments for granted.
6. Be flexible + compromise.
Some parenting rules DO need to be black-and-white (e.g., don’t touch the stove, don’t open the door for strangers, put infants on their back to sleep), but many things don’t.
Figure out what matters to your family. Define the lines. Then let the grays in. Whether that means an extra half hour of TV, staying up past bedtime or, as we have been known to allow, having a Nutella and marshmallow sandwich for breakfast. Choose your battles.
7. Be creative.
And I don’t just mean being clever about using recyclables for art projects. I mean using spontaneous creativity to overcome parenting hurdles. Thinking outside the box in parenting is essential. There are times when planning is good—but also times when winging it can be better!
Like my husband inventing “The Splinter King” (naturally, a friend of the Tooth Fairy) to come and leave coins under our son’s pillow after the successful removal of a splinter. Using “noodle paint” (i.e., pesto or tomato sauce) to color pasta for my picky-eating-very-artistic-child. Floating Cheerios in the toilet bowl as target practice to make potty-training fun.
The list goes on and on. Embrace your own family quirks, allow your unique family culture to emerge, but remember to never stop creating!
8. Ask for help.
If you don’t have family nearby to help you, ask friends, neighbors, colleagues, babysitters or your doctor. Raising a child is not easy, no one does this alone and we all need some help and support.
9. Make mistakes.
It’s the only way to learn anything, even parenting. Just don’t repeat them and don’t drown in the guilt of whatever error or oversight you may have made. Learn something from your mistake, then move on and do it better the next time. (Remember, children are resilient, physically and psychologically.)
10. Have fun. (And drink coffee.)
Being a mother is the hardest fun I’ve ever had. Enough said.