By Dan BortolottiUpdated Jun 18, 2013
Raising children demands a vast set of complex skills that can’t be distilled into a Top 10 list like you’d see on Letterman. Still, the lofty fundamentals — love, respect, morality — are surprisingly easy to reduce to simple, achievable daily goals. Hey, it worked for Moses, the other guy with the Top 10 list.
None of these goals will make you smack your forehead and wonder why you never thought of them before. In fact, you probably do many of them already, three days out of four. It’s a matter of being mindful of what you’re doing, rather than acting on reflex.
Click through this gallery for our top ten list of little ways to do something good for your kids — today.
Responding to our kids often involves acting on reflex. Sometimes we give them the knee-jerk “no," and other times we resort to half-listening — giving our kids the impression that what we’re doing is more important than what they’re saying. Or we interrupt them. “For some parents, there’s a tendency to correct misinformation or try to teach as we’re listening,” says Janice MacAulay of the Canadian Association of Family Resource Programs in Ottawa. “That doesn’t allow enough time for what’s really important to come out.” If your preschooler says, “Mom, I gots to tell you something,” it’s not the time to correct her grammar, or you may never hear what she gots to say.
Children need our focused attention. So, stop what you're doing, sit down and look them in the eye.
It’s not just toddlers who love repetition — rituals and routines are comforting for everyone. Some follow religious or ethnic customs, others are weirdly idiosyncratic. Either way, they help shape a family’s identity.
Alyson Schäfer, a Toronto parent educator, says a fun family ritual — whether it’s Sunday brunch at a pancake house or a weekly basketball game in the driveway — can be an oasis for families where there’s a lot of friction. “You may not be able to solve all of your family’s woes,” she says, “but by doing more of what’s fun, you change the ratio of good times to bad times, and just by doing that you have a happier family.”
Though it may gross out the kids, displays of affection nurture your marriage and model a healthy relationship. As Schäfer notes, having kids can be tough on a couple’s bond. “There’s a mistaken notion that your marriage will wait,” she says. “I’ve seen parents with six-year-olds who have never left their child with a babysitter, never gone on a holiday or even gone out for dinner or a movie.”
They might learn something from Kennan Silva of Edmonton. “My husband, Todd, and I do little things for each other. Sometimes he’ll bring me a chocolate bar, or I’ll have coffee ready for when he gets home. We hope that when our children are adults, they find the same kind of loving relationship and will not settle for less than what they deserve.”
This must be the most common public service message around, but regular story time can tail off when kids learn to read by themselves. For families who do continue, the rewards go beyond literacy.
“My girls are seven and nine and we read to them about five nights a week,” says Jen Hrabarchuk of The Pas, Manitoba. “Reading to them gives us an opportunity for cuddle time, which is rare at this age. Plus, we get to see how much they comprehend from longer stories.”
Helen Whitehorn and her husband, Mike, of Newmarket, Ontario, take turns being the narrator with their eight-year-old son, Matthew. “He'll read a page, we’ll read the next. He likes non-fiction and finds it fascinating to learn new facts. If he doesn’t understand something, he and Dad talk about it together.”
No one needs to remind parents to cuddle their infants. But like bedtime stories, hugs and kisses often taper off as kids get older and find them embarrassing. Even so, physical affection doesn’t have to mean giving your 12-year-old a zerbert on the belly while his skateboarding pals are visiting.
“For some people it’s awkward, so find the ways that are OK with you,” MacAulay suggests. "It may be lying down together at bedtime, a relaxed hair brushing, a wrestling match or even a half-hour on the couch in front of the tube." MacAulay knows of a mom with lots of teenagers who once told her, “I don’t really like television, but I do sit and watch, mostly because I’m hip-to-hip with a couple of kids.”
Leah Johnson of Chilliwack, BC, learned first hand how a laugh can defuse a volcanic situation. She was in the minivan with Graham, six, and Sydney, four, when the bickering got to her. “I felt a yell starting in my throat, and I tried to think of a good threat. Since I couldn’t follow through with the old ‘knock it off or you’re both walking home,’ well, I barked at them!”
Johnson says there was instant silence in the back seat. “Four very round eyes looked back at me in the mirror. Graham started giggling, and the next thing we knew we were all howling with laughter. They both started barking right back at me, and it was a very noisy but happy trip home. I’ve used it quite a few times since then. I wonder if it will still work when they’re teenagers.”
For some parents and kids, catching up comes naturally around the dinner table, before bedtime or in that most popular of family meeting places — the car. Others may need a conversation starter. “One way to get kids to open up is to briefly share your own experiences with them first,” MacAulay says. Some families even have a ritual in which parents and kids share one good thing and then one bad thing that happened to them during the day.
Like everything else, though, there needs to be a balance, MacAulay says. As kids mature, they need space to grow and that means we shouldn’t be involved in every aspect of their daily lives. “It’s important to become comfortable with not knowing.”
This isn’t the best advice when your preschooler decides to try out dad’s acetylene torch or explore a divided highway. However, when your 11-year-old forgets her school project (after you reminded her twice), or when your son’s T-ball swing isn’t going to get him to the majors, you sometimes just need to back off.
“I like to talk about developing a child’s psychological muscle,” says Schäfer. “We want to prepare our kids for life, not protect them from it. Otherwise we interfere with important developmental processes.” When the consequences aren’t huge, allowing our kids to fail helps teach them to succeed next time. And we can give a nudge to their problem-solving abilities. “You forgot your homework today? What do you need to do so it won’t happen tomorrow?”
Finding and keeping good child care is difficult, but the payoff is big for your peace of mind and your children’s comfort. Whether they’re live-in nannies or workers at a daycare centre, caregivers don’t like to be treated like indentured servants. Take the time to let them know you appreciate what they do for your kids.
A survey of nannies on Todaysparent.com revealed that many don’t even get a gift on their birthdays or at Christmas. Those who did made it clear that it meant a lot. “One family I worked for would leave me little notes, flowers or baking as a way to show that they valued the work I did for them,” says Vicki Sims, nanny to two girls. “It does take a bit of effort, but it’s worth it.”
All the goals here are worth striving for, but don't expect to accomplish all of them, every day. And don’t beat yourself up trying to do the impossible. “Parents' expectations are going through the ceiling,” Schäfer says. “Look for improvement as opposed to perfection.”
It comes down to cutting yourself the same slack you give your children. “Parents get the concept of encouragement when it’s applied to their kids," says Schäfer, "but they forget they need to be self-encouraging as well.”
Let’s make that goal number 11.