From developing curiosity and resilience to fostering security and confidence, these small strategies will help you reach all your major parenting goals.

By Catherine Newman
June 03, 2019
Priscilla Gragg

The Tug-of-War has been around since ancient Egypt, and right now, you are witnessing the rainbow-xylophone iteration. Your preschooler had been busy hammering out a little tune when your older son barged in and yanked the instrument away, leading your little one to shriek and stake his claim.

You probably want to say, “Please, just give the xylophone back to your brother. I can’t stand to listen to that shrieking for one more second!” But you don’t—or at least, you don’t always. That’s because you’ve got to think about the bigger picture.

In a nutshell, the ultimate challenge of parenting is balancing what you do or say in any given moment with its broader impact. Jessica Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure, puts it this way: “We have to be thinking more about what our long-term goals are for our children, not just parenting in this emergency.” And as Catherine Pearlman, Ph.D., author of Ignore It!, constantly asks parents, “What’s the endgame?” This means considering the skills you want your child to learn, as well as the values you want to instill. That’s the biggest picture of all.

So if you want your kids to learn to share and you value kindness, you might say to your older son, “We need to take turns with the xylophone because there’s only one of them, and your brother is trying to play ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb.’ ” And then you say to your younger son, “Your brother is sad because it looks like so much fun and he wants to play too! After you’ve finished this song, please give him a turn.”

There is never going to be one right answer or a single universal value that guides your parenting. There’s just going to be you, learning to reframe the way you react to a specific situation so that it aligns with your big-picture goal, and with the even bigger one beyond that. Here are some suggestions for getting past the urgency of now to focus on the person you hope your child is on his way to becoming.

The Small Strategy: Sing his praises for trying a new or scary food.

The Big-Picture Goal: An open-minded eater

Which Reinforces: Curiosity

You don’t want to end up in the sci-fi scenario of pushing a spoonful of cottage cheese toward somebody’s clamped lips. And you don’t want a weird hostage situation at the table, with your kid held captive over a plate of brussels sprouts. So take the high road and praise him extravagantly for trying new things: “Look at you, taking a bite of a dumpling! Nice.” Then cheerfully and unscoldingly acknowledge his various reactions: “Yup. You spat it right back out. I saw that. You definitely still don’t like raw tomatoes.” The goal here is to help create an association between curious, courageous experimentation and positive feedback. “Meals are an opportunity for learning, for having a new experience,” Dr. Pearlman says. As long as there is at least one healthy food on the table to choose from, you can relax. Your kid isn’t getting scurvy.

The Small Strategy: Offer nighttime connection.

The Big-Picture Goal: A good sleeper

Which Reinforces: Feeling secure

Lots of children who’ve learned to sleep fine as babies go through later phases of anxiety or loneliness. “You want to give your kid a rock-solid confidence that no matter what happens, she can always turn to you, and she’s never alone,” says Edward M. Hallowell, M.D., author of The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness. You can help your child feel more secure by making yourself accessible to her at night. Put a small mattress or futon on the floor of your bedroom so she can stagger in during the wee hours and lie down nearby. If you like, institute a “Don’t wake us—just come in” policy. Good old-fashioned walkie-talkies are another solution, especially if you’re on different floors of the house. Think of this as the big-kid version of a baby monitor, which will let your child relax a little, knowing that she could, in a pinch, connect with you.

The Small Strategy: Model helpfulness.

The Big-Picture Goal: A child who’s quick to help

Which Reinforces: Compassion

If you want your child to see other people’s troubles as a cue to step in and step up, then do the same for him. By routinely asking, “What can I do to help?” and also letting him see you ask this of your partner, friends, and family, you’ll inspire him to have that instinct. Of course, this doesn’t mean preempting his own process of accomplishing something, if that process involves independence. But it might mean offering a hand in a situation where he has made a mess (either figuratively or literally) that he’s struggling to clean up: “I’m sorry you’re sad. Do you want to talk about how to apologize to your friend?” “That’s a lot of spilled milk! Can I help you get the mop down?”

The Small Strategy: Give your child autonomy over study habits.

The Big-Picture Goal: A child who does her homework

Which Reinforces: Self-determination

“The first thing we have to do is ask kids what their perfect vision of homework looks like,” says Lahey. Because while you might have an ideal scenario in your mind—your kid cheerfully working at the kitchen table and getting everything done by dinnertime—she is a different person from you, and the best strategy for long-term success is to give her some autonomy and control. Maybe she needs time to unwind after school, and even though you’d rather see her starting her social-studies worksheet, she’s lying on the couch, staring blankly up at the ceiling. Fine. Or maybe she’s a morning person, and as much as it stresses you out, she’s going to get up at 6 a.m. to finish those math problems. Okay. Have a conversation to clarify what your child’s plan will be for getting homework done, see what she needs to realize that plan (a lamp at the kitchen table, a designated spot in the living room for her notebooks, extra pencils), and then leave her to it.

The Small Strategy: Offer support from the sidelines and honor his experience.

The Big-Picture Goal: A child who can deal with frustration

Which Reinforces: Resilience

Take the classic example of a tiny kid trying to tie his shoes without your help. There might be some groaning and some flinging of sneakers and even some stomping around or weeping. That’s understandable. You don’t need to step in and take over. Your job is to be a supportive presence who recognizes his admirable persistence: “That’s called manual dexterity—where you have to do something with your hands in a really exact way—and it’s hard!” “Wow, you’re learning how to make the bow! That’s the most difficult part, which is why it takes so much practice.” When your kid says, “I can’t do this,” Lahey suggests telling him, “You can’t do this yet.” If he can imagine future mastery, he will feel better equipped to handle the frustration of the learning moment.

The Small Strategy: Emphasize good things.

The Big-Picture Goal: A child with a positive outlook

Which Reinforces: Gratitude

Take every opportunity to point out your family’s good fortune: “Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe the ice-cream truck picked our street to drive down!” “Grandma is coming over for dinner! We’re so lucky she lives nearby.” As Dr. Hallowell says, “Surround your kids with positive energy. Create a milieu that’s essentially optimistic and upbeat.” Not perfect, of course, but one where you’re able to see the positive forest (we love each other) for the unpleasant trees (we argued in the supermarket about a Snickers bar). Because the ability to feel content with what is, rather than always yearning for some imaginary better thing, might truly be the biggest-picture goal of all.

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