The Meaning in Life

Seeking a life that matters.

Parenthood and the Intentional Life

Three strategies for working with life's most precious gift.

True Wisdom, according to Socrates, comes from embracing the realization that there is much we don't know, and that we will always need to seek knowledge of the most important of these. 

My kids show me this all the time.  From my failure to grasp the complex social world of Bionicles to my Vulgarian lack of appreciation for the whimsical artfulness of 'Yo Gabba Gabba,' my bottomless ignorance is a source of constant amazement to my kids.  Parenting is one of those commonly acknowledged "meaningful things" we do.  Yet, it's also a huge challenge, and is pretty regularly linked to lower levels of subjective well-being.  Like many of life's most important things, the rewards of parenthood seem directly related to the value we place on it, and our struggle to surmount its challenges.  And, it's frequently humbling.

So, I readily acknowledge my ignorance.  But, for some reason, I still maintain that I am a generally rational person, capable of making well-planned decisions that move me along the path lit by my purpose and passions in life.  My kids are helping me see that this, too, is a delusion.  If it isn't obvious by now, I want to make it clear that my children are much, MUCH better human beings than I am, but none of us are perfect.

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Case in point:  After a full, last-day-of-summer, kid-a-palooza-fest filled to the brim with cutting and gluing paper airplanes, bike rides, staging fierce battles between Transformers and mermaid princesses, prancing around in blanket-capes, dancing at make-believe balls, putting puzzles together, and more social activity than I typically achieve in a month, I was pooped and pressed for time to make dinner.  After a paying lip service to the appeal of quiet activities like reading, my kids revealed their actual plan was to argue, stomp around, and fiercely compete in the who-can-yell-loudest-and-gallop-around-the-kitchen-most-erratically Olympics.

I tried to intervene in the typical way. You know, start intoning a reasonable sentence about playing quietly, please no yelling, please vacate the kitchen - then observe that there is no audience for my discourse and ramp up quickly to the Wrath of Poseiden, bellowing GO TO YOUR ROOMS AND PLAY QUIETLY!!!!

Thus having already lost my personal, daily battle not to be a reactive, emotional, loudmouthed moron, I should have been able to take some consolation - perhaps even pride - in the stolid, dignified demeanor of my little ones as they looked at me, said OK, and trotted up to their rooms in an instant.  Look how far they'd come since the days when any such "redirection" would have elicited whines and moans of injustice!  At least that's what I should have been thinking.

Instead, I was put out by their apparent lack of gravitas for the situation.  Didn't they realize they'd been banished?  So, realizing the stupidity even as I uttered it, I added a Dickensian "...while I think about whether I'll send you to bed without any supper!"

Ugh.

So, what went wrong?  I had a plan, had previous experience rationally doling out appropriate consequences, had successfully navigated rational behavior modification with these kids before.  Yet, there I was, Ahab howling absurd threats to the whale's maw! 

If something like this has ever happened to you, here are three strategies for getting through the little behavioral bumps in the road of parenthood.

  1. Fight fire with fire.  This has been said before...don't we all know this?  Yet, there I was threatening starvation for being noisy.  That is not my first priority, so it shouldn't warrant 'the big guns.'  In fact, the way that I try to deal with noisiness, particularly when I'm bumbling about dinner is by getting down on their level and *calmly* explaining that they are being noisy, and that it affects me negatively.  Usually, just this simple conversations triggers their empathy and they motivate themselves to create a solution.  If what I want is calm, empathic behavior, I find it works really well to be, well, calm and empathic.
  2. Have a plan.  Really.  I know my story doesn't equate to a ringing endorsement of my plan not to be a bellowing moron, but I do way better than I would if I was left to my own devices.  The key is to identify what behaviors you want to change, and spend some time working on your intervention strategy.  If you are parenting with a partner, then getting on the same page is critical.
  3. Practice makes perfect.  That's right, practice being a parent.  Kind of how none of us understands (or even reads) the reams of documents regulating our single most expensive purchase (our homes, typically), we also tend to kind of just hope that we'll come naturally to one of our most important jobs.  The real problem with my 'bad parenting' story wasn't that I didn't have a plan, or know that I was overreacting, it was that I was out of practice.  Kind of like Bret Favre re-re-un-un-un-retiring, I'd been coasting a bit this summer.  I paid the price (actually, my kids did, kind of like we perpetually beleaguered Vikings fans will be paying the price 'round about November).  I need to get back to practicing my rational, thought-out responses to the very predictable eruptions of kidly energy and ebulliance I'll face in the future.  I also need to practice responding to my own, internal reactions to these eruptions.  Tons of research on emotional regulation and emotional intelligence demonstrates the value of recognizing and remediating unhelpful emotional reactions.  But, as with anything important, it takes practice to do it well.

I'd suggest two other things, but I fear they are unique to my situation.  First, have kids with the kind of person I'm partnered with.  Between the two of us, we equal two parents, but I only count about a half a parent.  Second, write a column about how awful of a parent you are - it's super motivating!

I'd love to hear questions, reactions, and tips from parents and kids out there, so please leave a comment!

© 2009 Michael F. Steger. All Rights Reserved.

Michael Steger, Ph.D., is a faculty member in the Counseling Psychology and Applied Social Psychology programs at Colorado State University.

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