Birdy has asked to stop and use the restroom. This is a not unreasonable request: We are, after all, on a ten-hour road trip, and she is, after all, 5 years old. Ah, but the bells are tolling, tolling, tolling out the death of everything good and right in the world, because...
"Birdy, we just stopped at a rest area not even five minutes ago," I say.
"I know," she says.
"And Birdy, you said you didn't need to go."
"I didn't," she says, apologetic.
I turn around to look at her. Her little face is like a deflating soufflé; she is literally wringing her hands. Her brother, Ben, 8, is scrunched into the corner of his seat, as if my withering look is a deadly ray gun that must be evaded.
I am the parent from everybody's childhood memories -- the one who was angry with you for being little. I am also the clown parent in a family circus, and I'm juggling juice boxes and a broken flip-flop, and the falling balls of my own sanity. Impatience is fizzing up in me. We are never going to get there. We are never going to get anywhere. We are just going to stop and use the bathroom, over and over, like we're in the movie Groundhog Day -- or an existential French play about a road trip in hell.
"I can't believe we're going to get off the highway again," I say, and Ben, brave boy, steels himself. "Mama," he says, and sighs. "She just needs to use the bathroom. Probably she should have gone before, or whatever. But she needs to now." And he's right. It's as simple as that -- or almost, because it's a weirdly hard principle to learn: People are different from you, and the more gracefully you can deal with that fact, the better. That's harmony, in a nutshell.
The kids are older now and compared with those early years, everyday life takes less effort. Their father and I aren't as tired as we were then. The kids brush their own teeth and pour their own cereal and buckle themselves into the car. They no longer topple each other's marble chutes or tussle over the can of pretend carrots and peas or lie on the floor crying for no apparent reason.
That's most of it, of course. But there are also some things we do deliberately, things you can do too, to make harmony the household vibe. You can cultivate communication and compromise, flexibility and kindness, courtesy and the benefit of the doubt. Or, well, harmony: Each voice is different, and the individual notes might vary but we're all singing the same song.
Edward Hallowell, M.D., psychiatrist and author of The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness, says, "We talk about achievement but not enough about the power of love, connection, harmony."
Are there breakdowns along the way? Sure. The kids still make weird sounds specifically tailored to drive each other crazy. I'm irritated when people leave their homework and art projects spread all over the couches. My husband, Michael, and I fight boringly about tit-for-tat household chores. But because we enjoy each other's company -- and because we enjoy enjoying it, if you follow -- we try to solve our problems as quickly as possible so we can get back to it. These are some methods that work for us.
Think before you call a sitter, not just because of the money you'll save -- but also because you'll end up sharing so many interests with your children. We took Ben to his first folk festival when he was 3 months old. Two-year-old Birdy cheered with us at political rallies and gazed wide-eyed at an exhibit of Georgia O'Keeffe flowers. The kids have gone out with us for tacos and chicken wings since they were babes in arms, mesmerized by the ceiling fans.
It's important to include kids as much as possible, says Dr. Hallowell: "The more parents can take seriously being present with their kids, the better. It pays off. The kids will be happy and confident and engaging because you're connecting with them." He means stuff you do at home too -- reading to them, playing games, listening -- as well as taking them along when you pursue your own grown-up interests out in the wide world. But I'm thinking about the latter because it can be discouragingly hard. When they're tiny, for example, and you end up trailing a newly walking somebody up and down the museum stairs or standing outside the restaurant with a wound-up somebody else who needs to skip or cry or investigate the hydrant for an hour. Oh, it can be tedious, even though it's worth it because what you're saying is: We can do both things! What you like and what I like too. In fact we do that still: The kids do want to go for a bike ride with us -- but especially if we bike to the good ice-cream place instead of boringly off onto the endless rail trail.
Where to eat, which board game to play, what to do with a free afternoon: Teachable moments abound. Not only will weighing in reinforce for the kids that their opinions matter, but they will also get to practice negotiating, compromising, conceding. Especially now that the kids are older, we enjoy their illuminating input about how to allocate our limited resources. When Ben recently lobbied for a new couch -- he wants a big, comfy one -- he was inspired to comparison-shop online and present various budget-friendly options. This is the big-kid version of letting him pick out a passion fruit in the supermarket when he was 4 -- and it's teaching him the same skills, according him the same respect, and diminishing, in a small but real way, some of that powerless feeling that children must suffer so much of.
Of course, you don't want to stand on ceremony in your own home -- but it's a mistake to dispense with courtesy. Because that small and basic back-and-forth act of saying thank you -- for snipping chives for the baked potatoes, for being so much fun to spend time with, for getting drinks for our guests -- has ramifications that are huge and complex. Jeffrey Froh, Psy.D., coauthor of Making Grateful Kids, describes gratitude as a life-orientation, and his Laboratory for Gratitude in Youth at Hofstra University, in Hempstead, New York, has found that grateful kids are happier and more satisfied with their life; they do better in school and are less materialistic and less inclined to be depressed. Dr. Froh feels the same way about his own kids, who are 7 and 4: "One of our goals is having a nice, peaceful, cohesive home that's filled with harmony. Feeling grateful -- and expressing it -- is crucial. Thank you for sharing. Thank you for playing with me. Thank you for coming to the basement with me when I was scared. So often, parents miss the boat on thanking their kids" -- and, I would add, spouse. Dr. Froh explains, "If they do something nice and you thank them, it shows that you respect them, you acknowledge how they're benefiting your life. Being appreciated -- that's one of the greatest feelings."
Besides, kids (not to mention grown-ups) who are in the habit of expressing gratitude are simply more fun to spend time with. When a recent camping trip got rained out, there was some doom and gloom. But the kids also saw the silver lining: "At least we got to have a fire in our fire pit at home!" Sure, there's room for occasional griping, but we're simply happier when we're inclined to look on the bright side.
And we're happier when the kids -- the siblings -- feel like there's enough to go around: sufficient marshmallows and time and puzzle pieces and attention. When my children were tiny handfuls, the book Siblings Without Rivalry, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, made a huge impression on me. I didn't have to grouse at Ben, "Can't you see how busy I am?" because he wanted to play Sorry! and I was bathing his baby sister. I could say instead, "I'd love to, as soon as I'm done here. Do you want to get her towel for me?" It's just a small recasting, right? But it's the one that seems to quiet that miserable sibling drumbeat of competition for resources. Likewise, I have a slightly quirky practice of gossiping to the kids about each other, but in positive ways. "Read Birdy's school report with me," I say to Ben. "They totally get her -- you're going to love it." I invite Birdy to join me in making a card to celebrate Ben's successful band audition: "Could he be more awesome?" I say, and she responds, "Seriously." It isn't some big philosophy I started consciously, but I see what it does: It rewards the siblings with special attention for mutual appreciation. As Dr. Froh says, "When you have these close relationships you feel secure. If my son sees me dancing with my daughter to 'I Will Always Love You,' he can laugh and enjoy it. He knows I love him just as much."
This doesn't mean that nobody ever fights. As Dr. Hallowell puts it, "Conflict and connection go hand in hand. The opposite of connection isn't conflict: It's indifference."
It also helps to remind kids that they're allies. "Research shows that if you give kids a task to do together, that will reduce conflict," says Bruce Feiler, author of The Secrets of Happy Families. This works with Feiler's own 9-year-old twins -- and it works with my kids too. "You guys are fighting a lot about the Legos," I said one summer. "Do you want to figure out a way to organize them so that they're easier to share?" The kids jotted notes, pulled containers from recycling, and separated building areas. This -- calling on the conflicted parties to come up with their own solutions -- is one of my favorite resolution strategies.
Of course, this isn't always going to work with a grubby-footed baby who is staggering joyfully around the tent, getting dirt all over her brother's sleeping bag. Or with the remorseless snatch-and-go toddler who steals every one of the Lincoln Logs her sister lays down. But even then, you can try taking the big kid aside and saying, "This is so frustrating for you. What do you think we can do about it?" You may be surprised by the way a child will rise to the problem-solving occasion: "Let's fill the bucket and wash her feet!" or "What if I give her a turn with my special farm?" or even, "I don't know. I hate it when she does that." At the very least, you'll be laying groundwork for harmony. And it will come. It really will.
Back on our road trip, we stop for the bathroom half a dozen more times at least, but something has shifted in me: I feel a kind of awareness that there's not another, better life we're traveling toward; there's just this life here, in this car, with these kids whom I love, whose needs are different from mine and just as important. "Connectedness is the key," Dr. Hallowell says. "It's where kids get the attitudes -- optimism, zest for life, resilience -- that tell the story about how happy they'll be." I can't think of a story I'd rather tell.
Originally published in the December 2014 issue of Parents magazine.