24 Ways to Be the Happiest and Greatest Parent-A Counterintuitive List
You’ve all heard the airplane metaphor about parents putting their oxygen masks on first before helping their child. It’s a cliche for a reason because parenting can in fact suck the oxygen from you and you absolutely do need to take care of yourself first.
Parents, especially moms, aren’t always the best at taking this advice, but I’m here today to tell you if you are happy and fulfilled, your family is much more likely to follow suit. This list of 24 ways to make you a happy and great parent- parenting advice may feel a bit counterintuitive, but eventually, if you take it to heart, it will become intuitive. The best part is your happiness will attract more happiness and your family life will become more blissful.
We all know parenting is both the hardest and the most rewarding job you will ever have and it’s also a 24-hour gig that never ends. Even when your kids move out, they still keep us up at night because they will forever be at the top of our minds and in our hearts. Raising kids to be physically and mentally healthy, happy, productive, kind, motivated, helpful, self-possessed, intellectually curious, philanthropic, active, adventurous, financially capable, and the list can go on and on…is truly a Herculean feat. We also want to encourage our kids to have grit, be creative, think outside the box, be balanced, make and keep friends, help with chores, think of others…and that list can go on and on.
If only we were handed a parenting manual that said something like, “Follow these steps for resiliency. Turn to page 27 to problem solve when this ______ (inevitable or completely unpredictable) issue comes up.” I will confess I was that mom who read all the parenting manuals, starting with how to get my baby to sleep through the night as an infant. I didn’t dare tell the other parents at my Mommy/Daddy and Me class how I got my daughter to bed at 7 pm and how she slept until 8:30 am or that I’d never slept so much in my life. Of course, as the parenting Gods would have it, I was also the mom whose second child was not nearly as cooperative. It didn’t matter because I was so much more relaxed, as the second-time around usually proves to be. I continued to be that parent who read manuals and attended all the school lectures about my growing adolescents who miraculously grew taller than me and became enthusiastic teenagers with their own very strong opinions. I’m still reading manuals as my oldest daughter gets ready to fly the coop and leave our warm nest, like the amazing book, Grown and Flown. I even had the great pleasure to interview the co-founder, Lisa Heffernan for my Dear Family, Podcast.
My Interview with Lisa Heffernan- Grown and Flown- How to Stay Close as a Family and Raise Independent Adults
Rachel Steinman- Dear Family, the Podcast
I’ve never taken it for granted how grateful I am that I’ve become the parent who my friends, family members, and even acquaintances turn to or send their friends and family members to when they have questions about raising happy and well-adjusted kids. Maybe I’ve become an accidental parenting expert because I have daughters who are thriving in their own ways but who never have to be perfect, because who is perfect anyway? Maybe it’s because I can laugh at myself. Or maybe it’s because I’ve dedicated myself to helping others see the importance of protecting and cultivating our mental health.
We all deserve to live life to the fullest while celebrating our beautifully complicated families.
Yes, I studied developmental psychology for my undergraduate work and have my Master's in Education. Yes, I have two teaching credentials and I’ve taught Kindergarten and first grade for many years. Yes, I’ve had the great opportunity to substitute teach every elementary grade, even was the school librarian. I highly recommend volunteering to read to children if you love seeing beautiful angel faces staring back at you as you share a great story and their eyes light up as imagination ignites.
Could my parenting expertise have begun when I taught an after school dance class to awkward tweens and made them feel great about themselves? Or maybe it began when I tutored kids whose parents were overly anxious about their child’s reading or math levels so I could make some extra money while also bolstering their kid’s self-confidence? Or maybe it’s because I loved being involved in, creating, and administering school admissions at multiple schools recognizing kids' various learning styles and highlighting their strengths.
I was the parent who besides being a fly on the wall at my daughters’ school when I substitute taught each grade and got to know the staff intimately, I’ve also worn practically every hat you can think of as a parent volunteer. I’ve been a room parent for every elementary school grade and the Head Room Parent, you know the one who sends all those annoying emails. I planned the Back to School Picnic, volunteered at the student store, the school fair, and the holiday boutique. I cooked for and helped with teacher appreciation luncheons and supplied the surprise snacks. I organized cooking and art centers, chaperoned school dances, and helped with school formals. I’ve been the basketball and volleyball team parent and organized snack schedules. I even planned a basketball tournament to raise funds for a school charity.
You may think I did this all selflessly out of the goodness of my heart for my children and the other children who benefited. Truth be told, and this holds true for any service, I was the one who got the most in return. I met some truly incredible people, who have become close friends and felt part of a community. My heart was opened up to the beauty of giving and I learned some new skills, building my confidence to jump into situations I knew nothing about.
As I write this, I officially have two high schoolers, a 9th grader and 12th grader, two very independent young women who act as if they don’t care if I’m involved in their school anymore, or at least that’s what they tell me. I’ll check back on how they feel about my years of service when they have kids of their own.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the fact that not all parents have the luxury to give of their time during the day or even at night after a long workday. The important thing is to be involved when you can. Carving out an hour on the weekend to do something special with your child will never go unnoticed or under-appreciated. In the end, it’s all about love.
“All you need is love
All you need is love
All you need is love, love
Love is all you need”- The Beatles
If your child feels loved and supported, they will grow up to continue to give it back and love will come back to them- a beautiful cycle. Whereas love is never counterintuitive, this parenting advice list may be.
24 Ways to Be the Happiest and Greatest Parent Ever
1. Put yourself first and be Selfish
Putting yourself first is self-care and refuels your battery so you can give freely, which in the end is not really selfish. Putting yourself first is self-promoting, self-loving, and self-fulfilling. The biggest bonus- you will be happier and your partner, kids, and friends will want to be around you more, which will attract even more happiness.
2. Strive for greatness, but never perfection
Take done well over perfect, a concept that is unachievable anyway, and you will feel freer. You’ll move through your to-do list and be able to move on. I’d also recommend celebrating all your beautiful flaws because it makes you unique.
3. Get rid of shoulds
Just saying, “A good parent should…” causes anyone anxiety. Instead, a good parent tries their best and does the best with what they are given. We’re all learning and when we know better, we do better.
4. Be an open-book role model
You are the first person your child ever knows and her/his first teacher. Don't be afraid to show your flaws and be open about them or admit when you don’t know something or need help. To be vulnerable is to be brave. If you show your kids you can cry and feel sad but also pick yourself back up and persevere, you are modeling at your finest. They will learn strength vicariously which will help them get through difficult times.
“Asking for help isn’t giving up. It’s refusing to give up.” — Charley Mackesy
5. Discuss sad and tragic stories
Obviously what you share should be age-appropriate, but if we shelter our kids from heartache, then they may think their feelings need to be pushed down. Using words they can eventually use to name and describe their own feelings helps them deal with a range of emotions when they come up. Your kids will know they can come to you if they have concerns or questions because nothing is off-topic. Pointing out suffering is a human experience that passes if you learn to let it is also super helpful.
6. Talk about your family’s history of mental health issues
Mental illness can begin around 14 years old, sometimes earlier, and they can inherit a genetic predisposition. By having an open dialogue about your family’s mental health history, you are opening up communication, checking in on them, ridding the stigma if there is an issue to be dealt with, and putting yourself in a better position to get the help they need right away. The good news is treatment works and the sooner the better. So many people don’t get the mental health help they need, with an average of 11 years after they first noticed signs of mental health issues. Some never receive help. Would you not take your child to the doctor if they complained about a stomach ache after a week?
7. Talk about anxiety
This is a big one lately with our kids. Address the elephant in the room. Reassure them anxiety is a normal human experience and it can actually be helpful in pushing us to get things done and fuel our fires. It’s when anxiety gets out of control and stops you from moving forward that it needs to be dealt with. Call anxiety out because if you keep pushing it down, the pressure will build and get greater, and eventually it will explode. Name the anxiety and do something to get rid of it- like meditation, exercise, list-writing, therapy, art, listening to music, or possibly medication.
8. Encourage them to talk to strangers
It’s actually family, friends, and coaches who are usually the people most likely to harm or groom a child for harm. Children are safer when they can assess people without fear and gain street smarts, not when they are paralyzed by angst. When my girls were young, we used the term “tricky people”- people who tried to trick them into something that wasn’t good for them. They also learned that no adult should ever touch their bodies on their “bathing suit parts.” If they got lost and couldn’t find me or their dad, they were told to go ask another mommy with kids for help or to find a person in a uniform, at say Disneyland or someone working at a store behind a counter.
9. Never say never
Before I had kids, I used to watch my students' parents bribe their offspring with a treat. I sat on my high horse and swore I’d never be “that parent.” Not surprisingly, once I had my own kids, you know I used the ice cream/candy card when I needed it. I was that fresh-faced teacher with my newly-minted teaching credential who looked down on my kindergartners’ parents who confessed to me at their parent-teacher conferences how they didn't always have time to read to their kids every night. Not until I had my own kids did I not only sympathize with those hard-working and loving parents, but I looked down on myself for judging them because I didn’t always have the time to read to my daughters. This was a big lesson in never judging until you walk in someone’s shoes…which we really can never do anyway, so logic says don’t judge.
10. Let them be a little bit naughty
I have to admit (with a wink) it was the rule-breaking students who ended up stealing my heart and it was the kids who never broke a rule who I worried about most. Obedience is for rule followers and those that break the rules are often the people who succeed in life. Don’t get me wrong. Kids need boundaries and rules to thrive, especially when it comes to in the home and at school, but sometimes it’s OK to purposely look away.
“Well behaved women (I’ll add kids who turn into adults) seldom make history.” — Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
11. Be curious and interested, but not too over interested
Curiosity is contagious until it gets to be nosy. Learn when to back off, especially with teens whose developmental milestones push us adults away as they gain their independence. Before pushing your questioning to the point where they shut you out, walk away ahead of it and begin again later. This is a real tough one for me because I am not always patient, but in this instance patience really does pay off. I often find myself pacing back and forth in our hallway biting my tongue when I’ve wanted to continue a conversation. I’ve always been happiest (and so have my girls) when I let it rest, decided not to send the hot-headed text, and revisited the discussion at a better and always calmer time.
12. Let them handle dangerous tools
When your kids show interest in preparing food with sharp knives or using power tools, don’t let your fear stop them. At first, you need to be close by to supervise, but the more you allow them to explore, the more trust you put in them, the better and more efficient they will be at using those tools later on…which builds up their confidence, which we all know is key to feeling happy. Oh, and maybe they will become a master chef and carpenter.
13. Respect is two-sided
If you want them to respect your privacy, your authority, your whatever, show them the same in return. They will surely take notice when you step back and let them command it.
14. Bad or no communication- take a hike or change scenery
When you are at each other’s throats, not communicating, or not connecting, one of the best things to do is to get outside into the fresh air. A sure way to get your kid to open up is to take a long drive or do a side-by-side activity that is physical, like baking, gardening, or hiking. Don’t forget to have them eat first because empty stomachs make for empty dialogue and ice cream dates make for big smiles.
15. Don’t create a digital footprint without their permission.
Sharenting (or oversharenting) is when parents overshare photos and other data of their children on social media. As proud parents, we want to show our kids off but we really need to ask their permission because we are creating a digital footprint they did not create. You can’t always ask their permission when they’re little, so if you do post pictures of your kids, make sure your accounts are private and the geo-locations are turned off. When your kids get old enough, you should ask them for permission before posting. You’re modeling social media etiquette and respect, something you want them to learn to do with others. Don’t get me wrong, this one is not easy for me (as evidence by the essay I wrote below- and the corresponding podcast) because my podcast is called and is all about our Dear Family,. I want to splash my social media accounts and even this essay with beautiful images of my family but I can’t.
When a Child has to Teach their Parent About Consent and the Implications of a Digital Footprint She Didn’t Create
16. Let them go- your kids don’t belong to you
I often say “my girls” or “my loves” or “my daughters” but really my daughters don’t belong to me. They belong to themselves. One thing having two girls who were both born in September and have the same genetics, and who grew up under the same roof with the same family values have shown me, is they are both so different and they were born that way. Honor your child’s uniqueness, allow their future to unfold while supporting them, and let me go.
“Give the ones you love wings to fly, roots to come back and reasons to stay.”- Dalai Lama
17. Leave your kids
There’s nothing better for the soul than a night or even a trip with your girlfriends or your guy friends. When my daughters were young, my husband and I had a standing Saturday night date night I would look forward to all week. Our daughters saw the importance of their parents making time for their relationship and that they did not always come first. Speaking about good for the soul, taking a trip without your kids (post-pandemic) gives your marital relationship time to breathe and grow and think. It also gives your kids space away from you, which they also need.
18. Stop doing for them what they can do for themselves
If you want to create a lazy and entitled child, do all their chores and never let them lift a finger. If you want to create a grateful child who is confident in their abilities, have them do for themselves and for the family what they can do without help. My husband is much better at this than me because I can’t help but pick up after my girls (excluding their own rooms) because I can’t stand a mess. So for example, if I ask my daughter to put her dishes away and she doesn’t after a certain amount of time, her dad will take her dirty dish from the kitchen and leave it on her bed…something she’s not into, a lesson that pushes her to not to do it again.
19. Positive reinforcement is way better than negative punishment
As an educator, I learned the best practice for teaching, that still to this day stands out, is the powerful role of positive reinforcement. If you chastise or point out what a student, or in this matter your son or daughter did wrong, they are only going to focus on the emotion of how bad they are feeling, shutting them off from listening to the lesson you are trying to teach. But if you begin with praise about something they are doing right and continue with a gentle lesson on how they can improve, I promise the outcome will be drastically better in your favor and you both will feel happier.
20. Back off, daydream, and allow space
Let your kids be bored. One thing this pandemic has shown us is how we were running on treadmills to get them to their endless list of activities. Everything they do from the moment they wake up to the moment they go to bed does not need to be about what goes on their future college application. There is no one-size-fits-all education system anyway and their happiness is beyond important. If they need help in school, reach out to their teachers and administrators, but by all means, don’t do their homework for them. Slow down and unburden yourself by not over planning. Encourage them to always get a good night’s sleep to dream at night and give them time to daydream about their future. It’s in the space between when they will have the opportunity to get creative and be in the moment…a true path to happiness.
21. Let them fail, stumble, fall, and suffer
How do you raise a self–reliant and compassionate child? Don’t swoop in to rescue them. In other words, don’t be that helicopter or lawn-mower parent. I’d rather my kid not make the team or get a bad grade sooner than later so they can realize failure isn’t the end of their life and so that their motivation can be ignited. It’s hard to see our kids suffer, cry, or feel bad, but once you see it as character-forming and a valuable life-lesson, it makes it a lot easier. When they do make that team or get that good grade after working extra hard, just think of how much more meaningful it will be and how much more willing they will be to take a bigger risk with a bigger reward.
22. Add the word “Yet”
The power of adding yet to the end of a sentence is truly remarkable. I heard about a school district that changed its grading system from F for Failure to NY for Not Yet. The students who received the “not yet” grade proved to be much more successful the next year than those who often dropped out after failing. If your kid says, “I can’t do it,” or “I don’t get it,” remind them to add that small but powerful word, “yet” to make it, “I can’t do it yet” and “I don’t get it yet.”
23. Be honest about difficult subjects such as sex and drugs, but only tell them what they need to know
If your child/tween/teen/young adult asks you a question that catches you off guard, you can always make an excuse to walk away for a minute or tell them you’ll get back to them. By all means, collect your thoughts in order to give sage advice. Be honest with them because they can sniff you out if you are lying and hold it against you later, but only give them the necessary information. A 6-year-old only needs a few details if she asks about how a baby is made compared to a 12-year-old who can comprehend more biology. If your child asks you personal questions like if and when you smoked marijuana or when you lost your virginity, assess their maturity, and proceed. If you aren’t proud of something you did, tell them the honest truth so they can learn from your mistakes while giving them all the facts to keep them healthy and safe.
24. Give your time not toys
Obviously this does not ring true on a birthday or for Christmas or Hannukah, but what kids really want is your undivided attention. It may mean doing a puzzle or teaching them a skill, but having experiences like going camping or exploring a new city or restaurant together is truly priceless. And when they do get that extra special toy or maybe that computer they’ve been wanting for a long time, they will be grateful and appreciative.
“They may forget what you said (and I’ll add what toys you gave them) — but they will never forget how you made them feel.” — Carl W. Buehner
We all have the ability to love, so love yourself first. Your radiating joy and love will spread to your dear kids, your partner, your family, and your friends. Enjoy this beautiful life!