One of my Twelve Commandments is “Lighten up,” and I have a lot of resolutions aimed at trying to be a more light-hearted parent: less nagging, more laughing. We all want a peaceful, cheerful, even joyous, atmosphere at home — but we can’t nag and yell our way to get there. Here are some strategies that help me:
1. At least once a day, make each child helpless with laughter.
2. Sing in the morning. It’s hard both to sing and to maintain a grouchy mood, and it sets a happy tone for everyone—particularly in my case, because I’m tone deaf and my audience finds my singing a source of great hilarity.
3. Get enough sleep yourself. It’s so tempting to stay up late, to enjoy the peace and quiet. But morning comes fast. Along the same lines…
4. Wake up before your kids. We were so rushed in the morning that I started getting up half an hour earlier than my children. That means I can get myself organized, check my email, post to Slate, and get my bag packed before they get up. It’s tough to wake up earlier, but it has made a huge difference in the quality of our mornings.
5. I’ve been researching the hedonic treadmill: people quickly adapt to new pleasures or luxuries, so it takes a new pleasure to give them a jolt of gratification. As a result, I’ve cut back on treats and impulse buys for my kids. The ice-cream sandwich or the Polly Pockets set won’t be an exciting treat if it isn’t rare.
6. Most messages to kids are negative: “stop,” “don’t,” “no.” So I try to cast my answers as “yes.” “Yes, we’ll go as soon as you’ve finished eating,” not “We’re not leaving until you’ve finished eating.” It’s not easy to remember to do this, but I’m trying.
7. Look for little ways to celebrate. I haven’t been doing holiday breakfasts long, but they’re a huge source of happiness. They’re quick, fun, and everyone gets a big kick out of them.
8. Repetition works. A friend told me he was yelling at his kids too much, so he distilled all rules of behavior into four key phrases: “keep your hands to yourself”; “answer the first time you’re asked”; “ask first”; and “stay with us” (his kids tended to bolt). You can also use the school mantras: “Sit square in your chair;” “accidents will happen,” “you get what you get, and you don’t get upset” (i.e., when cupcakes are handed out, you don’t keep trying to switch).
9. Say “no” only when it really matters. Wear a bright red shirt with bright orange shorts? Sure. Put water in the toy tea set? Okay. Sleep with your head at the foot of the bed? Fine. Samuel Johnson said, “All severity that does not tend to increase good, or prevent evil, is idle.”
10. When I find myself thinking, “Yippee, soon we won’t have to deal with a stroller,” I remind myself how fleeting this is. All too soon the age of Cheerios and the Tooth Fairy will be over. The days are long, but the years are short.