How to Be a Happier Parent

A new book reveals the secrets of happy mothers and fathers.

Posted Sep 07, 2018

Courtesy KJ Dell'Antonia
KJ Dell'Antonia with one of her daughters.
Source: Courtesy KJ Dell'Antonia

Now that the kids have gone back to school, what do mornings look like in your house? Was everyone organized and on the ball on day one — clothes clean and ready, supplies packed, healthy breakfast eaten, and out the door on time? How about on day two? Have you yelled at anyone yet for dawdling or disorganization? 

If you have, know that KJ Dell’Antonia has been there. A writer and regular contributor to the New York Times, she wrote and edited the Motherlode blog, which covered all things parenting, for five years. She is also the mother of four children.

Mornings were just one of the aspects of parenting that used to make Dell’Antonia miserable (homework and sibling relationships were her other big trouble spots). But no more. She set out, as she puts it, to discover how parents “could bring more joy, pleasure, and even fun to those ordinary days that make up the measure of our lives.” The results are in her new book, How to Be a Happier Parent: Raising a Family, Having a Life, and Loving (Almost) Every Minute. From the first chapter (on mornings, naturally) to the last, she lists concrete things parents can do or change to lift everyone’s mood. But, importantly, she also discovered that parents who describe themselves as happier think differently in four major ways. 

1. Teach kids to do things for themselves.

“People who describe themselves as happier parents typically move from greater involvement when their kids are younger to encouraging independence when their kids are older,” Dell’Antonia says. “There’s an evolution in their parenting.” When kids are young, for example, they wake them up for school. When kids are older, they buy them an alarm clock and expect the children to get up on their own. If the kids are late for school, so be it: “Recognize that whether or not your kids get to school at 7:59 or 8:01 has possibly big effects on them and their day, but probably none on yours. Therefore, you can stop shrieking and stomping and be a more helpful, calmer version of yourself.”

2. Kids don’t always have to come first. 

“Happier parents don’t put their kids’ everyday needs above their own,” Dell’Antonia says. “When it comes to simple things — dinner or vacations or what to do on the weekends — they don’t make their choices solely based on what their kids want. They have their own things, and they prioritize those things.” Just because your child wants a ride somewhere does not mean you have to drop everything you are doing to take them. 

3. Know what really matters. 

“Happier parents know that most of what we perceive as threats to our kids are not really threats,” Dell’Antonia says. “Not getting into the right first grade classroom is not a threat. Not getting invited to your best friend’s birthday party is not a threat. Not getting into college is not a threat.” Parents who moderate their reactions to such events help both themselves and their kids: “They keep a more even keel, and it helps their kids keep a more even keel.”

There is some brain science involved in rethinking what is a true threat and understanding your reaction to being upset. When disciplining kids, for instance, Dell’Antonia says it’s important to learn to respond and not react, to keep from exploding and be able to think. “Whether a kid just shouted I hate you, or they just crashed the car, your brain is flooded with chemicals, with fear and adrenaline and panic,” she says. Giving yourself time to calm down is essential. “When you sail in with that fierce and frantic reaction, your kid’s brain reacts, too. Your kid can’t learn anything from you at that point. They have sailed off down that same river of emotion that you have. You’ve both lost each other. [Do] whatever you have to do to take the requirement that you react immediately away. [Have] somebody else take the kid. Send the kid to its room. Grab it and hold it tightly so it can’t see your face. Give your brain enough time to calm down.”

4. Look for the happier moments.

“The last thing that parents that describe themselves as happier do is both really simple and really difficult,” Dell’Antonia says, “I call it soaking in the good.” That can mean seeing beyond your child’s bad behavior to something unrelated: “Yeah, you have a kid on the floor having a tantrum, but [you are] able to look out the window at the horizon and go, man, nice sunset." Or it can mean working to notice the small, everyday family moments. “Hey, everybody is at dinner, we’re all around the table. That’s what I wanted. That’s the good stuff,” she says. “Really making a point of noticing and thinking about those things gives your brain a new set of pathways to go down instead of going down the wildly catastrophizing path. That is not a lecture about gratitude. It’s just a matter of looking up.” Stopping to look up is not just metaphorical advice. “When you look up at the horizon, it apparently helps your brain to see the broader picture,” Dell’Antonia says, citing work from neuropsychologist Rick Hanson

The time Dell’Antonia spent working on the book did make her happier. “I am much easier to live with,” she says. “My kids would tell you that I yell less.” But her children still have occasional complaints, like when Dell'Antonia refuses to give them a ride: “I think there are times when my kids would say it would be nice if she put our happiness ahead of her own more.”

Copyright Lydia Denworth 2018

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