By Leo Babauta
Parenting can be stressful. That’s probably one of my bigger understatements, but as the father of 6 kids, I’ve learned a little about handling these stresses so that it’s not such a big deal anymore.
Kids throw tantrums, demand to have their way, don’t see anything but their own point of view, break things, always need something, get hurt, fight with each other, start to rebel and become disrespectful as teen-agers, and so on.
But there are good bits too.
The truth is, dealing with the stresses of kids is the same as dealing with the stresses of anyone else. The stress is just magnified because 1) we are responsible for their lives, education, values and everything else, and 2) we are more emotionally involved with them than we are with most other people. Still, the basics of dealing with the stresses of others apply, and what we’ll talk about here can apply to anyone, not just someone with kids.
OK, let’s tackle this problem … we’re going to look at two areas: 1) how to deal with the stresses of others, and 2) how to make managing kids easier.
Stresses of Others
In her book Everyday Zen, Charlotte Joko Beck tells a story that I’ll paraphrase here:
Imagine you’re rowing a boat on a foggy lake, and out of the fog comes another boat that crashes into you! At first you’re angry at the fool who crashed into you — what was he thinking! You just painted the boat. But then you notice the boat is empty, and the anger leaves … you’ll have to repaint the boat, that’s all, and you just row around the empty boat. But if there were a person steering the boat, we’d be angry!
Here’s the thing: the boat is always empty. Whenever we interact with other people who might “do something to us” (be rude, ignore us, be too demanding, break our favorite coffee cup, etc.), we’re bumping into an empty boat. We just think there’s some fool in that boat who should have known better, but really it’s just a boat bumping into us, no harm intended by the boat.
That’s a hard lesson to learn, because we tend to imbue the actions of others with a story of their intentions, and how they should have acted instead. We think they’re out to get us, or they should base their lives around being considerate to us and not offending us. But really they’re just doing their thing, without bad intent, and the boat just happens to bump into us.
When we see things with this lens, they suddenly become emptied of anger and stress. Our boss was rude? Empty boat, just respond appropriately, don’t imbue with a story. Kid throws a tantrum? Empty boat, just breathe and find the appropriate, non-angry response.
This is detachment. It’s seeing the actions and words of others as just phenomena happening outside of us, like a leaf falling or the wind blowing. We don’t get angry at the wind for blowing, and yet the blowing does affect us. Let the actions of your kid be the wind blowing — you just need to find an appropriate response, rather than being stressed that this phenomenon is happening.
So when your kid is doing something other than what you’d like, let go of that desired outcome that’s stressing you out, and let go of the story you’ve imbued into their actions. Just think, “Empty boat, wind blowing.”
And then give them a hug. Let love guide your actions. Teach, don’t control. Set an example of how they should behave with your compassionate response. They’re watching you, not listening to your words, and that’s how they learn.
Making Things Easier
The skills above take practice, and I’m still learning them myself. I don’t claim to be the best at them, but the learning itself is a good process to go through.
With all of that said, there are some things you can do to make managing kids easier and less stressful:
- Teach them to be self-sufficient. Each step along the way, teach them to take care of themselves according to their ability to learn new skills. If they learn to brush their teeth, shower, fix their breakfast, wash their dishes, and eventually cook and clean and wash their own clothes, life becomes much easier.
- Set boundaries. There are certain lines they shouldn’t cross for safety reasons, and the earlier you can teach these lines, the better. Then there are softer lines that are inappropriate to cross — being disrespectful of others, damaging property, etc. — and for these lines, it’s good to teach them as early as possible why it’s bad to cross the lines. Repetition is key, and eventually they learn and things are easier for all concerned.
- Give them responsibility. Older kids can watch younger kids. Kids can pitch in with family chores, like sweeping and washing dishes and wiping counters and cleaning bathrooms. This is good for them, as it teaches them to be a part of a team and take pride in their work, while it reduces the load for you.
- Don’t schedule too much. Many parents overbook their kids, with practices and lessons and clubs and playdates and sports and recitals and much more. This gives the kids no time to play and invent on their own, and makes life much more stressful for the parent. Schedule as little as possible, and let them figure out how to use their time.
- Relax your expectations. Parents tend to expect the world of their kids, from how successful they’ll be to how perfect they’ll be at skills to how little they’ll mess up with things around the house to how perfect they’ll behave. Of course, none of these expectations is realistic, nor fair to the kid. Let them go. Accept them for who they are, and just have a good time with them.
I say all these things like I’ve perfected them, but of course I haven’t. I have a wonderful set of kids, and I know I’m lucky. I’m also lucky to have an amazing wife, Eva, who bears the brunt of the stress and makes things so much easier for me. But when the things above work, they work great.
Parenting can be stressful, but it can also be joyful. I choose joyful.