What air do your children breathe?

Contributed by Jody McVittie, MD

We have a lot of “air” stories and jokes at our house including one about the time I was checking out at the grocery store and my then 4-year-old announced (to the WORLD it seemed like), “Mom! You tooted!” But that isn’t the kind of air I’m talking about. I was reminded about a different kind of air pollution this December when my daughter had a pretty strong reaction to what I thought was an innocent comment about torn jeans. Why did she take the comment so personally? Well part of it is developmental… and… part of it is probably because I’m not connecting enough with my daughter to give her “good” air to breathe. I know that I love her and hold her with high regard – but she obviously isn’t as clear about it as I am.
Sometimes we take our job so seriously as parents that we spend a lot of airtime noticing what is wrong or missing instead of what is going well. The bathroom towel isn’t picked up, the dirty plates are by the TV (or next to the teen’s bed) instead of in the dishwasher, “please” and “thank you” seem to have vanished from the vocabulary, there is dawdling in the morning or crabbiness at bedtime. We politely (or not so politely) correct, remind, request, plead, and express our disapproval. Yes – setting limits is important. That is part of our job and our intentions are only for good. But if that is most of what is filling the air at your house it isn’t great for breathing.

Some steps for cleaning the air:
– Make a list of things that you really appreciate about your child(ren). Put the list somewhere you can read it regularly and add to it. Do your children know you enjoy them?
– Start listening to yourself. How many of your comments are coming from the “critical parent” and how many are coming from the “I love you no matter what parent.”
– If like many of us, the “critical parent” is outscoring the “I love you no matter what parent” give the “I love you parent” a boost. That might look like setting time aside to play with your child while you put your “critical parent” in time –out for a bit. It might look like adding compliments and appreciations to your meal times or to notes in lunch boxes or coat pockets. You don’t want the “I love you no matter what parent” to sugar coat things. Praise isn’t helpful long-term – but encouragement is essential.
– Notice the fears that call the “critical parent” into motion. She’ll never get out of diapers! He’ll never learn “please” and “thank you” which means he won’t get a job and he’ll be a derelict. This dawdling will make me late for work and ruin my whole day! The clothes she is wearing to school make her look cheap and some guy will take advantage of her and then she’ll be pregnant and ruin her life. Okay. I’m exaggerating a little bit. But sometimes we forget that it is important for kids to make mistakes (so that they can learn from them). We forget that none of us learned everything in a year or even two or three.
– Remember that reminding, nagging, and coaxing are not our most powerful parenting tools. Often problem solving after the fact when we as parents and our children are back in our thinking brains offers a better opportunity for the kind of connected teaching that children long for.
– Hug them, play with them, be silly with them. When it is clear you are enjoying being with your children the air gets clean in hurry.

Happy New Year!

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