How to Be a Happier Parent

by KJ Dell'Antonia

Clock Icon 6 minute read

Ten Mantras for Happier Parents

Before we go any further, I'll go ahead and reveal the book's ending, at least for me: I'm happier. When I started to apply what I've learned, things changed. My children get along better, and I handle it better when they don't. Mornings aren't ultra-stress sprints anymore, and while homework is scarcely making anyone in the house happy, it's not a big drain on my personal resources at the end of a long day. That leaves me with more to give at bedtime, and more ability to do things for myself as the evening winds down.

Some of what got better came from doing things differently, and the details-the ideas and tips and hacks-are coming, topic by topic. But so much of what shifted for me wasn't in what I did, but in how I thought about it. I was like Dorothy with her sparkly red shoes: I had what I needed to get where I wanted to go all along, but I still needed to travel my own road.

As I did, I found that I kept coming back to a few fundamentals. There were basic rules that applied again and again, and those came to form the guiding principles of my own life as a happier parent. When I'm uncertain, reaching for my next move, or about to lose my mind over a seeming "crisis," these are words I come back to. I hope they'll work that way for you, too.

What you want now isn't always what you want later. So many times, I would rather just take the easy way out. I can clear a child's dishes off the table. I can tell her the answer to that math problem. I can email his teacher to get him out of a jam. But me doing those things now doesn't teach my kids to do them later. In the short run, it means I'll spend a lot of time doing their work, and in the long run, it will mean I haven't given them what they need to grow up. In parenting, you mostly have to go the long way.

There is nothing wrong. This came from a book I read years ago with a very Buddhist slant (Sarah Susanka's The Not So Big Life). In her usage, there never was anything wrong, and there never could be anything wrong, because whatever had happened had already happened and was therefore the way it was, and not wrong.

I can't take it that far (which is why I am not a Buddhist), but I find this a comforting place to return to when things are going wrong. Child tantrum, job troubles, teenager in crisis, sickness, broken bones . . . fundamentally, nearly always, things are still okay. As philosopher Michel de Montaigne put it, "My life has been full of misfortunes, most of which never happened." I often say this one as there is nothing really wrong, but editors famously dislike the word "really." So I try to go all in, and most of the time, it's exactly true: There is nothing wrong.

People, including children-especially children-change. I'm a first-class catastrophizer. If something isn't going well, I tend to think it never will. He will never like school. She will never eat yogurt. Those two will never get along. I'm almost always wrong. Picky eaters evolve. Lazy students get motivated. Kids learn. That's kind of the point. But it's very important that we let them, instead of getting in their way by assuming they'll stay where they are.

You don't have to go in there. This is my shorthand for reminding myself not to be infected by my family's moods, from my daughters' dramas to my husband's occasional grumps. It comes from the tendency of one child to go into her closet and slam the door when she's upset. While it's true that sometimes I need to literally "go in there" to be with her, I don't need to go into her mood, and it won't help either of us if I do.

If you see something, don't always say something. I don't have to leap into every sibling battle or correct every minor infraction, especially if a child is having a bad day. Many things go better if I don't intervene, and it's possible to learn even the lessons that need the most repetition while occasionally getting a pass.

You do you. I have friends who do a lot of great things with their children. They take them on hundred-mile-long cross-country-ski camping trips. They spend a year in Madrid. They build a treehouse, volunteer at a soup kitchen, jam on their guitars, build a stone wall, rescue endangered turtles, have board game tournaments, show cows, take their crepe cart to farmers' markets.

We do not do any of those things. Importantly, I do not want to do any of those things. We do our things, some of which sound just as fantastic and some of which don't, and that's okay. I can't raise my kids as traveling circus acrobats because I am not a traveling circus acrobat, even if that would make a fantastic college application essay. A corollary to this is you can't do everything. You can't. The end-or at least, it should be.

You can be happy when your children aren't. It isn't my missing Thomas the Tank Engine. It isn't my homework. It isn't my sports team. It isn't my college admission. Our kids will have disappointments. They will make terrible decisions. Other people will screw them over. Luck won't always fall their way. Sometimes we will ache for them. Sometimes we will be struggling not to say "I told you so."

Either way, we can keep our own inner equilibrium. Sympathy and empathy don't have to mean that our worlds come crashing down around us when that's how it feels to our kids. Usually, we have something our children don't: perspective. We know that Thomas will turn up or be forgotten, that the homework will get done, and that there are other teams and colleges. We know what's big and what isn't. In her book Rising Strong, BrenŽ Brown says that we need permission to feel our emotions. This phrase is permission to understand your child's feelings from the security of your own, and to give your child the distance she needs to experience her own emotions without a sense of being responsible for yours.

Decide what to do, then do it. Being a parent can mean doing a lot of waffling. TV or no? Candy? Snack? Rabbit? Sleepover? Hoverboard? Scary movie? Concert? We weigh alternatives. We reconsider. We think, sometimes too much. Decide what to do, then do it reminds me that most of these choices aren't life-altering. It also reminds me to actively decide and then stick with it, instead of answering thoughtlessly and then giving in to begging later.

You don't have to get it right every time. Actually, you're not going to get it right every time. You're not even supposed to. No one does. Sometimes, you will yell when you wish you'd been calm. You will accuse an innocent child, and let a guilty one off the hook. You will help too much, or too little. You will bring the wrong child to the dentist, you will buy dinner from a vending machine, and you will realize that there isn't always a "right" choice anyway. And then you'll get another chance tomorrow.

Soak up the good. Unlike the rest of the mantras, soak up the good reminds me to do something I want to do instead of avoiding the things I don't. In his book Hardwiring Happiness, Rick Hanson (you'll hear more from him later) describes the way humans are wired to put more weight on negative experiences than on positive ones, in part because it's more important to remember to avoid a tiger than that the berries on this bush are sweeter than the ones from the tree over there.

We can be happier, he says, if we train our brain to revel in the positive. Hanson is a neuropsychologist, and according to his research, noticing when things are good and making an effort to soak that in feeds dopamine (a positive, calming neurotransmitter) to our amygdala, helping it to want and seek out more dopamine. I'm paraphrasing here, but essentially, the more you soak up the good, the more good you see to soak up, and the more your brain is able to stay in that calm, more positive place.

Thanks to Hanson, I've been pausing to absorb even the simplest of good moments. We're all in the car talking and no one is squabbling. The sun is shining and my kid is excitedly sharing plans for the afternoon. It even works when things aren't obviously going well-when one of my kids comes to me with a problem or a disappointment, even while I sit with that child, holding and talking, a part of me takes in the pleasure of being there. Soak up the good builds a reservoir of happiness for when things feel bad. Fill that reservoir, and you have happiness that stays with you.

Related Reads