I'm not a big fan of New Year’s resolutions. We come up with a list of things to do better, to be better, to spend less and lose more. We think about all of the things we don’t like about ourselves and decide Jan. 1 is the day to make all of these changes at once. Both my professional background and my life experience have taught me this is an ideal recipe for failure.
Change takes time; it doesn’t happen overnight. It requires patience and perseverance. It requires planning and courage. It means we need to be ok with mistakes and willing to try again. Intentions give us that space. It says, “This is where I want to direct my energy.” The days may vary, but our intentions can be a guiding light.
As we reflect on the year past, and dream of the year ahead, here are three parenting intentions worth setting. Each one is designed to bring more breathing room, more compassion and more connection to your family.
Take care of yourself and your relationships
What do self-care and relationship care have to do with parenting? Absolutely everything. While most parents put their own needs and their marriage or partnership needs last on the list, these actually need to be among your top priorities.
Why? Because you are the model for what a healthy adult and a healthy relationship look like. We may think that if our kids are happy and have all their needs met, it doesn’t matter if we suffer. The truth is, if you run yourself ragged and disregard your own happiness, your child is learning that’s what it means to be a parent.
When it comes to our relationship with our partners, our kids are watching that too. They learn how to navigate conflict, solve problems, repair hurt we cause and how we show unconditional love. We all hope that our children will grow up to have healthy adult intimate relationships. It’s up to us to make time for our partners, to put the effort in to grow together and model for our children the kind of partnership we hope they will have as adults.
Catch your kids doing things right
How many times in the last two days have you pointed out something your children have done wrong? How many times you pointed out their successes? If you are like most parents, the number of negatives far outweighs the positives.
Now think of a time when your partner had several complaints in a short period of time, such as, “The garbage is overflowing and you still haven’t taken it out,” “If you don’t load the dishwasher right, the dishes won’t get cleaned” and “The kids really want to play with you, can you get off your computer?”
Did you feel grateful for their wise words? Did you feel confident in yourself? Did you feel loved unconditionally, connected and willing to take their advice right away? Likely not.
We do our best when we feel connected to those we love and sense that we matter. Nagging, correcting and nitpicking don't invite those feelings, so we don’t see our children or partners changing their behavior in response. In fact, the discouragement that comes with our constant criticism is more likely to invite worse behavior instead of better.
When we shift our attention to what our children are doing right, they feel appreciated, loved and connected. It takes courage to try something new or change our behavior. Focusing on the positive is highly encouraging and is much more likely to invite those changes.
Some of the deepest set behaviors in children have shifted quite rapidly when parents take a break from focusing on the problem. I often invite parents to just let something go for a set period of time, stop the power struggles and ignore the behavior. Time and time again, once the child feels the pressure lift and a little space around the issue, they are ready to take positive steps themselves. This doesn't mean we can’t offer feedback and find opportunities to teach. We just need to be mindful of how we do it and make sure we are focusing our energy on more positives than negatives.
For many, it will take some practice to shift our lens, so patience is essential. We also need to manage our own anxiety and trust that we are not letting our children get away with something, but working with the human brain instead of against it. When our children feel our energy move to the positive, not only do we see more cooperation, but a more positive, joyful home in general.
Embrace tech-free connection time
One of the newest changes in the last generation of parenting has been the rapid increase of screens in our lives. Between smartphones, tablets, laptops and televisions, it’s hard to escape the constant urge to plug in. Yet the human brain is wired differently. We thrive off interactions with others and a sense of connection to real people — not just the online ones. We learn empathy from not just words, but body language, eye contact and general presence. Those aren't conveyed the same way online.
While parents often gripe about how hard it is to pull our kids away from screens, many children report the exact same problem with their parents. They don’t know how to reach us and it’s interrupting the single biggest thing our children need: our undivided attention.
Research has shown that just having a phone present on the table or in the room changes how people interact. It lowers the levels of empathy we experience toward those present and changes what people are willing to talk about. Young children are still developing communication skills and empathy; they need us fully present to model it for them as they learn. Older children need our undivided attention so they can trust the relationship and be willing to open up about what is really going on for them.
One of my top parenting tips is to spend the first 15 minutes after school or work connecting. Put the phone in the other room, turn the ringer off and remain fully present and engaged. You can talk about each other’s day, play a game, or just snuggle up on the couch — whatever your kid wants. Many families have found this shifts the entire evening from one of constant challenges and meltdowns to one that feels like everyone is on the same team. Parents are often surprised at the difference just fifteen minutes a day can make.
Added bonus: Your own ability to set limits and model healthy technology use is how they will learn to do the same.