"If your family is like mine, each day is so defined by routines and responsibilities that every minute seems 100 percent accounted for. You can't escape from such a full and absorbing life, nor would you necessarily want to. But there are ways to sneak into those busy days some moments of ease and closeness -- spontaneous fun, better talk, a change of pace that breaks up stress or moodiness, small connections that encourage kids to feel good about themselves and make you and your partner feel more confident and competent as parents. These instant happiness boosters take little time, money, or planning, but they can make a big difference in your life.
Take advantage of Saturday mornings to have all the kids come in bed with you for a 15-minute cuddle. Most days, you've got to leap up and hit the ground running in order to get everyone where they have to be on time. But one day a week, try not to schedule anything early so you can just hang out and feel close to each other.
- Mood Music
Here's a tip from the folks who make TV shows and commercials: Use background music to set the mood. When cabin fever strikes and the atmosphere around the house gets tense, pop some lively music in the CD player and watch the emotional barometer rise. Play old-time rock 'n' roll, or unearth some of your own teen favorites. "I play my parents' old polka albums," says one mom. "The kids think it's hilarious. Soon they're leaping and dancing all over the living room, and fights are forgotten."
- Deep Breathing
Whenever you're on the verge of completely losing it with your kids, take three deep breaths to cool off. Research supports the effectiveness of deep breathing as a calming mechanism that works well for children too. One mother, who often practiced the breathing technique at home, found that her 6-year-old daughter would climb on her lap and take three deep breaths to disengage from fights with her younger brother. And whenever this mother starts to snarl at the kids, her daughter says to her, 'Mommy, remember your breathing!'
- Indirect Compliments
When you want to praise your child, occasionally let her overhear you say something good about her to someone else. Sometimes kids discount direct praise as empty or embarrassing. An overheard compliment can be a powerful boost to self-esteem because your child knows that it's from the heart.
- The Talking Napkin
If mealtimes in your home tend to degenerate into shouting contests, give this turn-taking strategy a try. Place a red cloth napkin on the dinner table and pass it around during the meal. Whoever is in possession of it gets to talk without interruption. It's a concrete way for even younger children to practice listening, speaking about their day, and showing respect for others.
- A Cure for the Postparty Blues
The effort it takes to stage a child's birthday party is worth it, but postparty letdown is a common phenomenon for parents and birthday child alike. So after the last guest has left, you and your child should leave too. Take him out for pizza, visit a neighbor, or go to the park. Rehash the high points of the celebration. When you get back home after this little break, your child will feel calmer and you'll be ready to tackle the cleanup.
- Lullabies of Broadway
Most parents have established the ritual of singing a good-night song to their kids. Often this can feel like just another chore. At the end of the day, when you're tired yourself, you may not feel like another chorus of "There's a little white duck, sittin' in the water." Why not spice up lullaby time with songs you enjoy? One mom I know likes to vary her repertoire with show tunes from Oklahoma!, Cats, or Fiddler on the Roof. She exposes her child to different styles of music and gives herself a lift at the same time.
- Checking In
This easy tactic will quickly improve family communication and cooperation. Simply request that your child repeat the instruction you've given him. Ask, "What did I just say to you?" Parents are often surprised to learn that half the time, their youngster did not really get the message. You may have announced, "TV is off at eight o'clock," while your child heard, "I can't watch TV until eight o'clock." Reducing the amount of miscommunication leads to less frustration on everybody's part.
- The Never-Ending Game
Set aside ten minutes at the same time each day to play a game with your child, one you can return to daily. Some families play a round of backgammon. Others work on a 100-piece jigsaw puzzle. Reading a couple of pages of a story is popular with younger kids. The ritual aspect of the activity and the brief time-out from stressful demands help kids and parents calm down and connect with each other.
- One at a Time
Once a week, allow each of your children to have you all to himself for an hour, doing anything that the child wants to do. On Tuesday evening, your 3-year-old may want to play dress-up; on Wednesday, your older child might request that you sort baseball cards or spend time together on the computer. When your kids know they'll each have a long turn to get your undivided attention, they learn to respect each other's special times as well.
- Hitting the Road
When nothing is clicking, it's time for a change of scenery. One idea is to announce, "Road trip!" Get the whole family in the car, and take off for a secret destination, such as the library, a local pond, or the ice-cream shop. Even if the jaunt takes no more than an hour, the mystery and the chance for spontaneous fun will distract everybody from petty irritants.
- Counting Blessings
Take some moments in the evening at dinner or bedtime to acknowledge the good things in your life. Don't be heavy-handed about it. Just say, "You know, the nicest thing happened today . . . " and ask your child and other family members to share any good things that happened to them. Counting blessings is a way to end the day on a positive note.
- Sunday-Night Soiree
I'm sure that, like most families, you have experienced the letdown that occurs as the weekend draws to a close. You also probably have a refrigerator full of leftovers. On Sunday evening, invite a few neighbors with kids over for dinner and have them bring along their leftovers. The food may be an eclectic mix of cold turkey, ham, Chinese food, and parts of pies served on paper plates. This low-key but festive gathering takes the edge off the end-of-weekend blues.
- A Very Merry Half-Birthday
Mark this midyear milestone in a lighthearted, inexpensive way. For instance, it's fun to bake half a cake, give half a pair of socks as a present, and put up half a birthday sign. Any reason to celebrate, no matter how small, lifts the spirits and breaks up the ordinary routine.
An increasing number of parents are introducing their kids to stress-relieving exercises, such as stretching, yoga, and tai chi. Pop in a tape and have your kids join in as you limber up or relax. We don't think of children as being stressed-out, but given the intensity of their schedules, they often need as much relief as we do. P.S. Vegging out in front of the TV doesn't count.
- Once is Enough
A significant source of stress for parents is the need to overexplain and nag kids when they want something to get done. Decide that you will reduce the number of explanations you offer your child to just one or two. For instance, say only once that it's time to leave the park because it's getting dark. Don't add that it's dinner- or bathtime or give any other reason. This limits the possibilities that your kids will engage you in endless discussions. Offering a child too many explanations is like giving a finicky eater too many food choices -- kids feel confused and out of control. If you nip your tendency to keep explaining in the bud, you and your child will feel much more relaxed.
- Dinnertime Switch
Each Friday (or whichever night you choose), get your family members to change places with each other at the dinner table. The simple act of switching seats can give everyone a whole new perspective. The sense of novelty leads to fewer fights between kids and less wrangling over table manners. With different meal partners, you can develop new avenues of conversation, breaking the repetitive patterns of annoyance that can ruin everybody's appetite.
- Media Blackouts
For one night each week, declare that no one in the house will turn on televisions, VCRs, computers, or stereos. The uninterrupted downtime means there's more of an opportunity to play truly interactive games, the old-fashioned kind in which two people actually communicate. Think of a variety of ways to have low-tech fun, such as playing musical instruments and singing, reading aloud, telling jokes, or just talking.
- Share the Care
Take five minutes or so toward the end of the day to call or e-mail your spouse and clue him or her in on the daily news, good or bad, from the home front. Knowing what's going on in advance means that your spouse will not be blasted by it upon walking in the door, and you will be on the same page regarding your children. Staying in close touch with your partner -- perhaps meeting for a quick lunch if possible -- will ultimately make you a stronger and happier team.
- Think Small
Remember the bumper sticker that read hug a tree? Why not take some time to help your child appreciate the natural world around him? Let him try to wrap his arms around a tree, stop and smell the roses, or go outside and gaze at the stars in the evening sky. Think of these activities not as educational but as ways to let your child feel part of something greater than himself. So much in our society and child-raising practices tends to encourage kids to feel too big, powerful, exceptional, and alone. The truth is, children are less worried and more secure when they know they're not the center of the universe but a small part of the whole.
Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission from the June 2000 issue of Parents magazine.