Want to be a better parent? Go play tennis.

By Marilee Feldman, LCPC, CADC

If there’s one demographic group I most feel for right now, it’s parents of young children: stay-at-home moms, as well as moms and dads trying to work from home “in this era of coronavirus.”

I put that phrase in quotes because it’s really getting on my nerves. I suppose it serves its purpose, reminding us that these are stressful times, in case we didn’t know. Another one I’ve read a thousand times is “in this time of uncertainty.” Some authors seem to have created several digital macrocodes to insert admonitions into their articles, such as “‘take time for yourself’/ ‘practice self-care’ in this ‘era of coronavirus’/ ‘time of uncertainty.’” 

OMG. Thanks, most recent article I’ve read! I hadn’t thought of that. Why yes, I will practice self-care and take care of myself. Now that I know, I’ll just go do that! 

Hah! If only it were so simple…

Advice to practice self-care can be really annoying if the writer makes it sound easy. Why yes, I’d love to do creative craft projects with my kids to keep them occupied! And yes, I’d love to keep the kids on a regular schedule and have an epic star chart to encourage good behavior. If my stress level were low enough, I might pull that off, but it isn’t, so I end up losing my temper instead. Been there, done that? I know I have.

This reminds me of innumerable parenting books I’ve read that are full of great advice—I read a bunch of them myself when my kids were young—but neglect to mention that parenting well has less to do with knowing all the latest strategies and more to do with how good you are at getting your own needs met. 

Does that surprise you? Isn’t the point of parenting to meet the needs of our children? Well, yes, absolutely. And how do we do that? By meeting our own needs first, generally speaking. As they used to say on the airplanes  we used to fly on: put on your own oxygen mask first, then your kids’. 

But how do we do that…in this era of coronavirus? I doubt if anyone has a perfect answer, but I will offer up some observations from working with parents…in this time of uncertainty. And I’m talking to most parents I counsel these days, the ones having trouble setting limits with their kids. 

First of all, parents, please know that it is totally OK to start teaching your children that you have limits and needs of your own. (Perhaps not 2-year olds; they won’t get it.) But as children get older, they need to know that you are a person, too, and that, just like they like to play with dolls and action figures, you also have things you like and want to do. I personally worry that these days we aren’t teaching our kids that they are actually not the center of the universe; are you? 

So, let go of the idea that you have to meet your child’s every need whenever he or she chooses to approach you. Whether you are working or working out, if your child interrupts you an average of every 7 minutes (which I heard somewhere young children do), instead of trying to answer their every question or tend to their every need, make sure you are educating your child that you are off limits for the next hour and can’t answer that question or meet that need immediately. I’m constantly surprised by the moms I work with who feel guilty if they set limits on their child’s interruptions. Remember: It is not only OK—but also your job—to show your child that limits exist in this world, and you may as well use that to your advantage.  And yes, like the parenting books say, you can create an epic star chart and reward system so the child will have an incentive such as more screen time, which I also advocate, to leave you alone…in this era of coronavirus. My advice is, banish guilt—right away—for getting some of your own needs met.

Second, separate from your spouse. OK, not a real separation, but what I mean is, you and your spouse each need to have opportunities to do your own thing. The last thing we need right now is more family togetherness…in this era of coronavirus. What I observe in my clients is a sort of boundary-less tendency, especially in women, to be so worried about everyone else’s stress level that they hover over all the activities in the house, never really letting their spouse fly solo in parenting. Men can have this issue as well, and then everyone ends up together all the time, going crazy. My suggestion is, take your spouse’s word for it when they say they can handle the kids for a few hours while you go do your own thing. And if they don’t say that, ask for the time, or announce you are taking the time. And then, when you get back, do the same for them. Parents often say they parent better when the other parent is not there, anyway, as there is no one else to negotiate with on how things should be done. It’s a break for everyone. 

Third, pick activities for your kids more selfishly. If you can’t stand to play pretend games, then limit the time you do that, and that way you won’t end up frustrated with your kids. Notice that I am not saying, never do things with your kids you don’t want to do. But we need a bit more balance on how we chose activities, to avoid that thing where kids think they are the center of the universe. Announce to your kids occasionally that they’ll be doing the thing that you want to do. After all, which is better: going along with your child’s chosen activity too many times, ending up depleted and yelling at them, or having them come around to your chosen activity that puts you in a good mood? You don’t need your child’s agreement on every activity; just make a decision. As a friend of mine said about raising young children, “It’s more of a dictatorship.” Who knew? This can set you free. 

Fourth—and this one may be the most difficult and we’re just acknowledging that right here—work toward equity in parenting. Moms, even with the dads around…in this era of coronavirus…you know darn well that you are carrying most of what is called the “mental load.” Does dad know the names of all the teachers? Communicate with them about homework assignments? Think in advance about dinners and groceries? Know, if you’re leaving the house (if you can, in this era of coronavirus!), which items are needed in the diaper bag? If not, your job is not only to communicate your feelings about this inequity, but also to ask yourself: how have I enabled this? What have I done to make this easy for my partner to not be thinking of these things? Working toward equity in parenting will help you get your own needs met, and make you a better, more relaxed parent. 

I’m always surprised when I tell my clients, “You know, those moms who are always out playing tennis are sometimes the best moms.” They look shocked, as though I’m advocating checked-out parenting, which I’m not. But it’s important to take a look at how, especially “in this time of uncertainty,” we may be slowly harming our ability to parent most effectively. Instead, think about getting some of your own needs met first. Try it, you might feel really rejuvenated—and be a better parent for it. 


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