A common refrain I hear at almost any moms' group, social gathering or parent group is that we parents don't have enough time for ourselves. I hear moms discussing how they haven't had time to get a haircut in years or even a regular doctor's checkup.
Many feel this is just the life of a parent—it's just one of the many sacrifices we make when we have kids. While I agree that self-sacrifice is part of parenting, I don't think we have to completely give ourselves and all our time over to our kids.
Research supports this notion that a more balanced approach to parenting is most beneficial to children and parents. This balanced approach, classically called authoritative parenting (or positive parenting), represents a win-win for parents and children. This approach helps children gradually gain more responsibility and independence while it has the upside of offering parents a little more time for themselves.
What does positive parenting look like and how does it help give us more free time? That is the million-dollar question parents often ask.
Here are just a few ways in which parenting for independence can build crucial skills in your kids' lives and free up time for you:
1. Foster self-regulation skills.
Children are not born with great self-regulation skills; they have to be developed and fostered over the years. Young kids can have very BIG emotions, but limited brain maturity to actually handle them. This approach to fostering self-regulation may require more time from parents upfront, but in the long term, it aids children the rest of their lives. Over time, the type of emotional resources built in children means more time for you to handle other issues.
As researchers, like John Gottman, have suggested, becoming your child's "emotion coach" is one of the best ways to foster self-regulation. In contrast to methods that discipline children's emotional outbursts with time-outs or punishments, emotion coaching allows you to focus on the underlying meaning of your child's outburst.
The focus is on trying to empathize with their feelings, giving them the language to discuss their emotions and then working with the child to solve the problem or set limits on their behavior (as needed).
In day-to-day life, what emotion coaching means for parents is that they no longer have to referee every sibling squabble and over time, tantrums will become fewer and less dramatic. While more time-consuming at first, over time this approach provides children with the emotional skills to handle conflict themselves so you can gradual step away.
2. Allow for boredom.
This is one of the secret hallmarks of positive parenting. Since positive parenting focuses on getting at the root cause of our children's misbehavior, we often find boredom at the end of this process. Some parents believe the answer to boredom is to find more ways to entertain the kids, but positive parenting looks at this from another angle.
By allowing boredom, we teach our kids how to cope with that uncomfortable feeling so they learn how to handle it. Once you get past the initial "whining phase" of boredom, kids will often emerge much more resourceful than you expect. They find a toy they haven't used in months, make up a new game, or otherwise entertain themselves. This is when the magic happens.
When we do not "rescue" them from the uncomfortable feeling of boredom, their world opens up to a whole new set of skills they didn't know they had.
As with self-regulation, the skill of coping with boredom takes time to develop. Once you allow yourself and your kids to be open to the possibilities that boredom brings, you will find yourself with more free time instead of trying to distract your kids with new activities.
3. Ignore (some) misbehavior.
I know this one sounds controversial. Why would you ignore obvious misbehavior from your kids? It requires a little discernment on the part of parents, but once you get the hang of it, it can save you a lot of time and struggle. This approach really is about prioritizing which behaviors are serious enough to require your intervention or boundary-setting and which ones are just annoying.
For example, incessant finger-tapping on the table at dinner time can be annoying (we experience this nightly), but for most people it's not a major form of misbehavior that requires intervention. It's hard to ignore, but is it worth a battle with your child? Probably not. On the other hand, something more pressing like throwing toys at a sibling takes on a level significance that would probably require your intervention.
With positive parenting, our goal is to try to maintain positive interaction with our kids whenever possible. If that means ignoring a few frustrating behaviors, it helps to serve this larger goal. The nice side effect for parents is that you don't have to intervene in every little misstep your kid makes, which frees up your time. You can go to another room and read a book or have a few moments to yourself without guilt.
Additionally, by not scolding our kids for every tiny infraction, we build up the positive relationship vibe between us that will go a long way in moving them towards positive behavior in the future. The parent-child connection really is predominant in this approach.
4. Handle bedtime with care.
Prior to parenthood, many of us probably had those lovely images of bedtime with kids in our mind's eye. We would cuddle with our kids as we read a bedtime story and then they would drift peacefully off to sleep. In reality, we know that bedtime is often fraught with conflict.
At bedtime, the kids are suddenly starving, dying of thirst and have lost the ability to brush their teeth. As our kids delay and stall, we see our free adult time slipping out of our hands. Commonly, our first reaction is harsh enforcement of the rules. We know we need that free time at night, so we attempt to wrangle the kids into bed as quick as possible.
This strategy often backfires and kids re-emerge from their rooms with more requests. The real underlying issue is connection. Kids need their emotional "tanks" filled, especially during bedtime. Research tells us this is especially important with very young children (age 2 and under). One study found that how emotionally responsive parents were to their children at bedtime was a better predictor of sleep quality than the actual bedtime routine. Kids need to feel close and secure in their relationship with you before the day ends.
However, this connection doesn't always have to be crammed into the last half-hour of the day. Finding ways throughout the day to build a connection with our kids often can help ease those bedtime struggles. Spending time with them doing activities they enjoy or reading books prior to bedtime might help build that emotional connection.
In the end, these snippets of time you spend connecting with your child will save you time at the end of the night. When kids feel secure and connected, they are more likely to ease into bedtime, which means a little more free time for you.
5. Delegate responsibilities (yes, chores!).
When you hear the word chores, you probably do not think about time-saving possibilities. However, by getting kids involved in household responsibilities, you gradually gain bits of your time back. We all know that kids benefit from chores; the research on this is clear. One study found that one of the best predictors of successful outcomes at age 25 was having had chores when the child was 3 or 4 years old.
Yet, there are real challenges in encouraging kids to help with household tasks. Kids are often not motivated to complete them, they tend to be slow and they may not be finished the way you prefer. Some of these challenges can be overcome with positive parenting.
Kids who are raised with you as their "emotion coach" will begin to have more empathy for you and the work involved with running a household. This may not happen overnight, but by early elementary school age kids can have strong empathy skills if they've been coached along the way to understand others' emotions.
Similarly, toddlers are often very motivated to be helpful and copy the actions of adults. Many toddlers would love nothing more than to get their hands on a real mop, broom or dust wand. By starting chores at a young age, you can capitalize on this age when chores seem like another game. I've had several parents tell me that their kids actually enjoy cleaning toilets with a brush. Even elementary-age kids often feel empowered by being given a task normally reserved for adults.
Delegating chores is the ultimate win-win for parents and kids. Kids learn valuable life-long skills and parents gain a little time back into their already busy lives.
Parenting will always require much of our time, emotions and patience. By incorporating aspects of positive parenting, however, we can foster the skills that kids need to gradually take responsibility for themselves.