Could we go down in history as the generation that forgot to enjoy our kids? It’s a shocking indictment, but the evidence is mounting: recent research found that parents become happier when their children have left home, while another study earlier this year found that working mothers with two children are 40% more stressed than anyone else. Meanwhile, Australian academics report that the pressures on parents mount after a second child and that there are accompanying deteriorations in parents’ mental health.
And, as a two-year-old could probably tell you, stressed-out, unhappy parents raise stressed-out, unhappy offspring. The UK’s annual Good Childhood report, out last month, found there are more unhappy youngsters now than at any point in the past decade.
It feels like a good time to ask whether there’s a better way – and common sense tells us that it starts with parents, because if we can find the joy in raising our kids, our kids are more likely to find the joy in life. Somewhere along the way, parenting became just another chore on the list for already exhausted, up-against-it individuals.
We have sought the wisdom of some of the world’s leading parenting gurus, on how we can rediscover the joy of raising children at every age. Because who wants to wait till they’re gone?
The baby years
Philippa Perry is a psychotherapist and the author of “The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read”. She says a major key to happier parenting is to simply take “parenting” out of the equation – because having a baby is more about being a human being in the throes of developing a new relationship. And thinking about it in that way will help you find the joy in it. “Don’t see a baby as a chore, or parenting him or her as something you have to ‘do’,” she says. “Instead, see the child as someone to relate to.” Be curious about your baby as a person, and revel in his or her curiosity about you
You also need to readjust, says psychologist Penelope Leach; it will be hard to find the joy in babyhood if you have unrealistic expectations. Leach, the bestselling author of “Your Baby And Child”, first published in 1977 and out in a new edition next year, says, “The mistake people make is to think they can get ‘back to normal’, but in fact there’s a whole new normal. And once you know everything is going to be different, it’s easier to find the pleasure in the new life you’ve got.”
And here’s an important tip from Rosalind Wiseman, whose “Queen Bees and Wannabes”, which examined female teenhood, was the basis for the 2004 movie Mean Girls: “Stop taking endless pictures of your baby and posting them online. Be in the moment with them and stop seeing them in relation to how you’re going to look on social media. It fans competitive parenting, which is the source of a lot of unhappiness.”
If you do one thing, do this: Be aware that your baby is not an accessory to your life; he or she is a new person, and together you are forging a relationship that will last a lifetime.
The preschool era
It’s easy to fall into the trap of worrying that your child is falling behind, or that they are wasting opportunities to get ahead. Nothing is guaranteed to kill the fun of parenting as quickly as obsessing over how fast they’re learning, and how they compare with other kids of your acquaintance. “If you think about what you can learn from your child, rather than what you have to teach them, parenting becomes much better,” says Perry.
Try to live as they do, in the present, as much as you can, because this is the last time in their childhood when they won’t be tied down by the rigid timetable of the school day. “The more flexible you can be, the more you’re going to enjoy this phase of their lives,” says Leach. “Not having a rigid idea about how the day will work out is helpful, if you can do it. So, when you hear the bells on the ice-cream van, stop what you’re doing and go get an ice-cream.”
“We’re in danger of missing our children in the moment, because we’re in too much of a rush the entire time,” agrees Perry.
Steve Biddulph, a psychologist best known for his books on raising boys, agrees: “Let’s face it, how much chasing around parks, flying kites or eating ice-creams on the beach would we do, without kids to do them with?” he asks. “How much belly-laughing and bad joke-telling or scrunching up on the couch?” They’re capable of showing us how to have fun, but only if we pay attention.
If you’re constantly comparing your kid with others, try looking at yourself rather than your child for a better way forward. Competitiveness always has its roots in our own insecurities – and valuing children for themselves, rather than in relation to others, is much more likely to help you appreciate them and, in turn, boost their self-confidence.
What is it about your own insecurities that is driving your competitiveness? Sorting your own demons out always makes your relationship with your child a lot better. The therapy I had when I was undergoing treatment for breast cancer made me realise that I had a right to own my feelings, that I could have a story that was separate from my life as a mother. Understanding my fears better helped in the way I interacted with my daughters, and that made me a better parent.
If you do one thing, do this: Be open to their way of doing things.
The primary school period
Boundaries are important, says Perry: but what you need to think about in laying them down is, what’s going to make you happy? Because if you’re happy, they’re happy. She advises parents to be more honest with kids of primary school age. “If you’re at the playground and you want to go home, instead of saying: ‘Let’s get you home, you need your tea,’ tell it like it is: ‘Let’s go home now, because I’m cold and I’ve had enough.’” Your child, she says, will know what it feels like to be cold, and they want to help.
A gem from Biddulph is to develop interests that you do one-to-one with them, and make them entirely for fun (there may be some learning on the side, but make sure that’s accidental rather than the point). “A daughter who walks the dog with her dad, for example, develops a cast-iron self-esteem because she knows ‘me and dad’ love one another’s company. You need ritual times when the good talks happen.”
It’s also important not to take their criticism personally. Honestly. Kids lay into their parents because we’re right there, and we’re easy targets. Practise Teflon parenting: let the criticisms slide off you and you’ll be happier.
The most common time for divorce is around 12 years after getting married, so primary school is prime time for relationship breakups. At this stage there’s still a lot of heavy-duty parenting to go, and you need to go on enjoying it – for the kids’ sake and yours. Leach’s advice is to keep in mind that “just because you found your partner in bed with your best friend, it doesn’t mean he – or she – isn’t the great dad or mum you believed they were”. It may be the hardest ask of your life, but keeping on good terms with your ex is the best recipe for keeping the fun in parenting.
If you do one thing, do this: Make space for your relationship with your child to grow by having regular one-on-one time, doing something you both enjoy: no siblings, no partners, just the two of you.
The not-so-terrible teens
Although they’re much maligned, it’s misplaced: teens (like toddlers) are a high point of parenting for many of us who have been there.
“One of the big joys for me as a parent of teenagers is the realisation that they’re able to do so much to contribute,” says Wiseman. “One of my sons regularly cooks for us, and loves it, and the other will help by going to the shops.”
And there’s so much to enjoy about having a teenager, if you’re tuned in to it. “I love their sense of humour, their honesty, their appropriate cynicism, their intense viewpoints,” she says. “Teenagers are really interesting people, as long as you don’t judge and go in with an attitude of respect.”
“I loved having a kitchen full of teenagers,” says Perry, whose daughter is now 28. As do I right now. So learn to enjoy the drop-of-a-hat parties, the dancing in the kitchen, and the friends who keep turning up. “Our children give us a connection right back into the juice and intensity of being alive,” says Biddulph. “We’re creaking, dried-up worriers, and they are straight from the heart of life.”
If you do one thing, do this: Be clear about your own needs, as well as theirs – it’s a two-way street.
All grown up
“My parents always thought they were the grownups and we were the children, even when we were in our 50s,” says Perry. “But with my daughter I don’t: I feel we’re both adults. And she helps me such a lot – she keeps me up to date.” I second that: would I be listening to Loyle Carner, trying barre classes, selling my clothes on Depop or drinking kombucha if I didn’t have adult kids?
They also go on to lead exciting lives that you can dip into: my eldest daughter, 27, lives by a canal in Amsterdam, which gives me an excuse for weekends away. Their world opens up your world, widening the horizons of your midlife.
There’s one caveat, cautions Perry. “The one thing you always have to remember is that your opinion matters more to them than anyone else’s.”
If you do one thing, do this: Respect the adults they have become. It’s not about telling them what to do any more, if indeed it ever was. And you certainly can’t change them now.
This article was written by Joana Moorhead and first appeared in ‘The Guardian’.
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