A while back I wrote a somewhat humorous article about being a parent. Although I was being somewhat silly, all those stories were basically true. After doing this with three kids over the last decade (give or take) I do feel like I could maybe take a crack at writing some serious advice to new parents.
This is a Big Change
Parenting can be rewarding, but it’s also very difficult. Before I became a parent, I thought I’d faced challenges and done difficult things. I thought I knew the value of helping others with no regard to my personal desires. I even thought I knew what dealing with children was like, from experience taking care of other people’s kids.
Having kids convinced me otherwise. Being a parent is easily the most challenging thing I’ve ever done – far more challenging than any job, class, or life event. The way in which your life changes and centers around your kids is very difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced it themselves. As someone who prefers solitude and quiet time, it was jarring to constantly be beholden to the needs of another, irrational being.
Children change and grow so quickly that as soon as you feel like you have a handle on them, they’re someone completely different. The upside to this is that if your kid(s) are causing you pain, chances are it’s a temporary condition. It’s easy for our brains to take today and extrapolate far into the future – we have a tendency to get stuck thinking as if the way we feel about something now is the only way we’ll ever feel about it.
Many people told me that the first six months were the hardest, or the first year, or the second or third year. The truth is, it depends on your child and how they react to the various stages that they go through. There’s no doubt that my kids are old enough now that they’re “easier” than they were when they were newborns, but there’s different things that are harder now than they used to be, while other things have gotten easier.
The bottom line is – kids are a change, and kids are always changing.
This is a Marathon, not a Sprint
When you first start out as a parent, it’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to just grit your teeth and fight your way through everything. It was doubly difficult for my wife and I, as we’re overachievers by nature. We set lots of hard rules on what the kids could and couldn’t do, and considered anything that wasn’t the 100% best way to raise our kids to be completely off limits.
The problem with this approach is that parents are still people. We have bad days. We’re stressed or we’re tired, or we’re anxious or irritable. All of these things are normal, acceptable, adult states to be in. Being a good parent is as much about taking care of yourself as it is taking care of your kids. Neglecting you to take care of your kids ends up hurting them. Figure out ways that everyone wins, rather than forcing yourself to sacrifice constantly.
The other way to look at this is that there are many problems that go away on their own, without having to fight about them. When I think about whether or not I want to lay down the law with the kids about an issue, I sometimes ask myself if this is a problem that will get better or worse on its own by the time they’re teenagers. If it’s something that is likely to get better, I tend not to worry about it as much.
Divide & Conquer
Babies don’t really sleep in the same way everyone else does. They wake up in the middle of the night, constantly. On average, they require feeding every 2 hours – that’s from the start of one feeding to the start of the next. If they take a while to eat, that may mean you only get an hour or 90 minutes “off” between feedings.
That means you’re going to be sleep deprived. You’re also going to be stressed out of your mind due to all the new stuff going on around the house. No sleep + new stress = insanity. Literally. This can drive you mad if you’re not careful.
My wife and I did everything together before our first child was born. We went to the store together, we went to work together, we went to bed together.
After our first child, we tried to continue doing everything together, but this just doesn’t work out. Each parent needs sleep and time to relax. We ended up taking shifts, which worked out a lot better. I’d stay up late so she could go to bed early, and then I’d sleep in when she got up in the morning. This can be tricky to do depending on work schedules and such, but at the very least it’s a good idea to nap while the baby is napping if you can.
It’s Not a Competition
Despite my “marathon” analogy previously, being a parent is not a race that can be won or lost. It’s really easy to get lost on Facebook or Pinterest or whatever and see a million other parents doing “better” than you at parenting. Everyone’s putting their best foot forward online.
Looking at everyone else’s kids and how awesome they are and what awesome things their parents are doing can be disheartening. You might start thinking you’re not doing good enough, or that you need to be doing more to catch up. Believe me, the things people put online are only the best of the best of moments for their families. Don’t get caught up in trying to compete or show your worth.
It’s also a lot easier for family members and friends to judge your parenting, and make you feel bad about the choices you’ve made or the things you’re doing. This is also counter-productive. Remember that you’re the parents, nobody else. You two are the team coaches and the players on the field, and everyone else is a cheerleader or a spectator who should be watching from the stands.
Don’t be a Random Pigeon
Kids appear very illogical from an adult’s point of view. The things they do don’t always make sense to us. In order to be able to predict and effect our kids’ behavior, we need to understand the way they think. Thus, understanding child psychology is an important part of being a parent. It can sound a little cold to say “you’ve got to manipulate your kids to do what you want” but there are a lot of bad behaviors you’re going to want to discourage in your children, believe me.
(For the record, I am not a psychologist, and I suggest you do your own psychological research if this sort of thing interests you.)
The first real hurdle most parents have to clear is sleeping. At some point in the first year, your baby will get to the point where they won’t need to eat as much during the night. They will still probably wake up and cry, though, and want to be soothed. Dealing with this can be challenging. A lot of parents decide to let them cry it out and go back to sleep, but then quickly their resolve starts to weaken as the sleep deprivation sets in. They give in after some amount of time, and pick up the baby, and decide to try again some other night. But this cycle starts to repeat itself.
People tend to do things that they think will help them get what they want. For instance, a child may lie if they think it will keep them out of trouble. In the case of the crying baby, the baby cries because it wants to be picked up and comforted. However, babies need to learn how to fall asleep on their own, eventually.
Many psychologists have studied this sort of behavior, with one of the most widely known (and controversial) being B. F. Skinner. Skinner put pidgeons into cages, and in each cage there was a lever. The birds were conditioned to press the lever when they wanted to eat. However, each bird’s lever did different things. For instance, in one cage the lever always dispensed food. In another, it took 10 presses for the lever to dispense food. Finally, in one cage, food was dispensed at random, with the lever doing nothing.
After a while, the birds in the random lever cage started to develop odd behaviors. For instance, they’d turn in a circle in a particular direction before pressing the lever. If the researchers stopped feeding the birds in response to the lever, the birds would eventually give up on pressing it. The ones that got immediate feedback stopped first, followed by those who got delayed feedback. The random pigeons held on the longest – mashing the lever and trying to do their special “lever give me food” dance, thinking that these actions caused the food to appear.
If the baby cries and you wait a while and then pick it up, what you’re saying to the baby is effectively – “Crying for half an hour causes me to be picked up.” They will then cry like that again in order to get what they want, because it worked last time. Over time, you build up this behavior that crying for extended periods leads to being picked up.
The basic bottom line to this is that you should decide what behaviors you want to discourage (ie, crying instead of sleeping, or sticking your fingers in your diaper and smearing poop everywhere, etc) and come together as a couple and agree on what to do about them. Once you’ve made that choice, try your very best to stick to it, lest you end up
What Works for Everyone Might Not Work for You
Finally, my last piece of advice is not to take anyone’s advice as the gospel truth. That includes the advice you’ve read here. Every child is different, and every parent encounters unique challenges. Anyone who tells you that they have a foolproof way of dealing with children is delusional.
Certainly, these days advice is easy to come by. Everyone can share their parenting stories, and everyone’s got an opinion about how everyone else should be raising their kids. Remember, though, that you’re the parents and your word is what goes in your home. If something you read online or heard about from a friend doesn’t seem to be working, it might not work for you. Don’t be discouraged, just try to think of something new instead.