Parenting well these days can feel harder than ever, especially for millennials and Generation Xers. We’re constantly given messages about which way to parent “best,” and we’re flooded with ideas about how to help children thrive. Whether we’re told to co-sleep with our infants or teach them French from their time in the womb, we’re often held to standards that are near impossible to meet.
It’s natural to try to be our best as parents, but it can be hard to know how. Oftentimes, the multiple messages we hear–to be more of this and less of that, to be disciplinarians or free-range parents–can make us more anxious and fearful, not more empowered.
However, not knowing which parenting choices to make can actually be a good thing. We can start learning through parenting, not only about our children, but about ourselves.
Parenting Can Change Our Brains
Those who study the brain have started to find that the adult brain is more “plastic” than we thought. While we once thought that we were finished growing at age 18 or 25, we now know that the brain can develop and change through adulthood.
Dr. Pilyoung Kim, a psychology professor at the University of Denver, has begun researching what she calls the “parental brain.” Not only is an infant’s brain developing, but a parent’s brain is developing as she or he raises a child as well.
Even though we’re long past infancy, we’re more adaptable than we think. We can use parenting as an opportunity to learn, develop, and change. Whether we’re parenting an infant or a twelve-year-old, we can take a generous rather than critical look at ourselves.
Making Room to Learn from Parenting
Before we can learn from parenting, we have to clear the ground. Just as children can’t follow directions when distracted, we can’t learn easily if our minds are scattered. To help learn from parenting, we can start with the following steps:
- In parenting messes, ask What would my best self do?
When we’re tired or exhausted, it can be hard to bring to mind our “best self,” or the self we can be on our best days. But we can take a moment to stop and visualize this best self, whether it’s calm and centered or excited and energized, and decide what that “best self” would do. We might not always follow through, of course, but having that self in mind is an important start.
This can be most literal and metaphorical. We can stop to take a physical breath, or try different strategies to decide what most refreshes us. It’s hard to learn when stress or anxiety are too high, so it’s important to manage it as best we can. For some parents, an active break works best, while for others, lying down and closing our eyes will let us relax. Small touches, like a drop of essential oils on a tissue (try lavender or bergamot) can help, not just for relaxing, but also for getting more sleep.
- Stop multitasking.
As parents, we’re often master multi-taskers, whether we’re managing to fix dinner and go over homework simultaneously or nursing an infant while finishing emails. But new research studies from Stanford suggest that multi-tasking makes us less productive than doing one thing at a time. Also, people who multi-tasked frequently and considered themselves good at it were actually worse than those who rarely did. Even though it might not feel that way, as parents, we can get more done if we slow down and focus on one thing at a time.
- Go online.
The Internet can actually help us focus, if we use it mindfully. Many apps are available, including Headspace, the “gym for the mind,” which has guided 10-minute meditations, and Calm, from Calm.com, which features background settings such as a fireplace or a beach. If you want to track your moods, which is known to help in managing them, you can use the Pacifica app. Sure, it would be better to sit on a real beach, but this can be a great second best option after putting the kids to bed.
Brackett, M. A., & Kremenitzer, J. P., with Maurer, M., Carpenter, M., Rivers, S. E., & Elbertson, N. (Eds.). (2011). Creating emotionally literate classrooms: An introduction to The RULER Approach to Social and Emotional Learning. Portchester, New York: National Professional Resources.