Parenting is an amazing adventure. It is an honor and a privilege to raise a human being. It is fascinating, and wonderful to witness your kids evolve, and to grow alongside them.
But parenting also has many annoying parts—frustrating, challenging, and sometimes downright maddening parts. And sometimes it’s these annoying parts that can bleed into the beautiful stuff.
However, there are many effective things we can do when specific challenges arise.
In How to Be a Happier Parent: Raising a Family, Having a Life and Loving (Almost) Every Minute KJ Dell’Antonia, a veteran journalist, author and mom of four, shares common problem spots along with a variety of valuable solutions. Her book is packed with practical tips, interviews with experts and stories from parents. Below are two challenging areas and what can help from Dell’Antonia’s excellent, encouraging, insightful and honest book.
Most parents find discipline to be hard. It’s hard when your toddler is having a major meltdown at mass or the grocery store. It’s hard when they’re sinking their nails into your skin. It’s hard when your middle schooler takes your credit card and refuses to apologize.
It’s hard to be consistent. It’s hard not to lose it when your child is not listening to you. For the billionth time. It’s just hard to discipline, because parenting is hard.
First, it’s important to truly understand discipline. It doesn’t mean to chastise or control. Dell’Antonia interviewed pediatrician and author Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, who emphasized that we are teachers, and our role lies in “guiding a kid to navigate the world safely.”
According to psychotherapist Tina Payne Bryson, “the behaviors that are the most challenging, and that drive us the craziest, are actually telling us something really important. They are telling us the specific areas in which our kids need teaching, support, and skill-building. Instead of focusing on what we need to take away from our kids for them to learn their lesson, think instead of what we need to provide for them to learn so that they become self-disciplined.”
Dell’Antonia reminds us that it’s the nature of kids to explore, push, test, forget. Which is tough, because it also tends to happen when we’re at our emptiest and most exhausted.
It’s also important to discipline ourselves, and to stay as calm as possible. And if we can’t, then it’s important to take a break. Because here’s the reality: Our stress response sparks our kids’ stress response. According to Bryson, “When we are reactive, angry, unpredictable, our children’s primitive brains are getting the ‘threat’ signal, and the brain cares first about safety. No learning can be done when kids don’t feel safe.”
Sometimes, it’s helpful not to engage—like when your child is having a mild tantrum or your teen is stomping around the house, screaming “I hate you.” Other times require clear-cut consequences—like not being able to use your car for a month. The key is to carefully pick your consequences, and to hold firm.
Processing what happened is valuable, too. According to Dell’Antonia, you might talk about why the child was tempted to behave the way they did, how they came to make the wrong decision, how they felt afterward, and how to keep it from happening again.
When things have calmed down, and you’re back to normal (or as Dell’Antonia writes, “the modified normal that is your punishment”), tackle something together with your child. This helps you reconnect and remember you’re on the same team. Maybe it’s gardening, baking or cleaning out part of the basement.
Homework can be frustating for various reasons: Maybe your child gets massively anxious about getting the right answers. Maybe your child has various tantrums throughout the night over finishing a few fractions. Maybe they refuse to even get started. Maybe your kids are coming home with way too many assignments. Maybe you feel like homework hampers family time—and everyone ends up feeling miserable.
The first step, according to Dell’Antonia, is to change your perspective on homework. In short, it’s not your homework. When we shift the responsibility of homework from our kids to ourselves, we rob our kids of learning how to achieve on their own.
I love the analogy Dell’Antonia uses: the goal of basketball isn’t to get a ball through the hoop. “If it was, we could get a ladder, or lower the hoop, and then all go out for ice cream. But no, the goal is to learn to get the ball through the hoop as best as a player can and to figure out where you belong on a team, how to follow the rules, and even ultimately whether you really want to be on the court.”
Plus, when you’re emotionally invested in your child’s homework, you send the message that what’s more important than family time, your relationship with your child, or who they are is their book report, science project or report card. You also can become the bad guy: If you’re involved in everything from nagging your child to sit down to making sure everything is done, and done correctly, suddenly it’s all your fault that homework is hard and that they forgot it at home.
The key is to remember the actual goal of homework. It’s for your child to learn, and to make mistakes (and again to learn). It tells the teacher how your child is doing. You also want to communicate to your child that you believe in their capabilities and competence, and that their “best work is good enough.”
You can support your child by helping them understand instructions and by encouraging them to make intentional choices around homework. Dell’Antonia shares this example: “When are you planning to get your homework done? You’ve got soccer from four to five and Holly is coming over for dinner.”
She also notes that every situation is different, and every child is different.
Sometimes it’s best to hire a tutor to work with your child, especially if helping them with instructions turns into you writing the whole paper. Another option is to talk to the teacher. Maybe your child is getting too much homework. Maybe you want to know how long an assignment is really supposed to take—because your child seems to be taking much longer.
Parenting is hard. Many rewarding, meaningful things are. But we also can meet those challenges. Sometimes it requires a slight shift in thinking. Sometimes it requires creative strategies. Sometimes it requires letting go.
Either way, the annoying, frustrating parts don’t have to become the whole pie. They can be a sliver, while the beautiful stuff is the biggest portion—and only keeps growing.