Here’s what John Cowan has learned in a quarter of a century of parenthood.
1. It gets easier
The first year of your first child will probably be the toughest of your life. (The last year of your life may be pretty rough too, but I’m not there yet – I hope!). My wife probably got sick of me saying, “This is the best stage!”, but honestly I loved each stage as my kids grew up and I just thought it got better and better. That even included the ‘turbulent twos’ and ‘testy teens’. What that probably means is that I learned a great trick of parenthood – appreciate it! In between the vomit, tiredness, poverty and yelling, these really are the best days of your life.
2. Spouse first
It was advice I received early on and I think it worked well – as a dad, the best thing you do for your kids is love their mum, and I am sure the advice works the other way around too. Kids thrive in the security of knowing their parents love each other. When you make their other parent the priority for your greetings and affection, it helps kids realise that they are not the centre of the universe and not even the centre of the family. I think there is a sense of relief that comes from that – “I am part of something!” By the way, I never found there was any conflict in my affections. Maybe in a dysfunctional, sputtering relationship there could be, but I have never been thrown into a dilemma where I had to choose between loving my Naomi or my kids.
3. Maintenance matters
The most valuable resource in your children’s life is their parents – they (i.e. you) deserve to be looked after. Your own mental, physical, social and spiritual health all need to be attended to, for their good as well as your own. Going to the gym, visiting relatives, ignoring the kids for a while so you can have a nap or read a book – all good stuff. We never felt any guilt at using babysitters to get out on a date, or using some of the budget for our own ‘selfish’ pleasure. If you focus all your time and resources on your kids and neglect yourself, your kids are going to end up with bored burnt-out parents, and your kids deserve better than that.
4. Don’t try to be a super-parent
If you spoke to my three adult children (all in their 20s now), they would entertain you for a long time about my failures as a parent. Some would be an exaggeration, but a fair bit of it would be stingingly true. However, I see very few physical or psychological scars resulting from me dressing them in mismatching pyjamas or letting them watch The Simpsons.
5. Go easy on the expert advice
I have read more than my fair share of parenting books and I am pretty certain I didn’t do more than a fraction of the things they recommended. Beware of the ‘experts’ who peddle guilt and fear in order to sell their books and courses. Your loving heart, instincts and the example of your own parents will probably get you 90 percent of the way towards being a great parent. The other 10 percent you can get from The Parenting Place! (And you won’t find much guilt or fear being offered there).
6. Early discipline makes things easier
I am going to boast a little here – my kids were far from perfect, but they were generally really well-behaved, and that was in spite of the fact that all of them had lively, colourful personalities. They were easy to take out in public. We heard nice reports on how they behaved at school and at other people’s places. Good discipline requires consistency and patience, and the earlier you start, the less effort is required overall. We must have done a few things right early on because, honestly, even the teenage years were a breeze.
7. Fun is the secret weapon of parenting
I have already confessed I did a lot wrong as a parent, but we had a lot of fun. Every parenting book will tell you that you have to spend time and communicate with your kids, but what they don’t tell you is that when you are having fun, you are doing both of these things. Building forts out of furniture, piggybacks, play fights, funny storytimes, and parties. Did I mention that these really are the good old days?
8. Don’t do it on your own
With three kids under four, my wife was often teetering on exhaustion and I was worn pretty thin too. Thank goodness we were not shy about welcoming offers of help from family and friends. “I’ll go to any event that has a crèche!”, I remember Naomi saying. And I am so grateful for the huge and positive input into our kids’ lives from the kind and caring adults they interacted with. It is sad to see that abuse has created so much fear in parents about other adults being in contact with their kids – our experience was overwhelmingly positive when other people were involved.
9. Take lots of videos and photos
Better still, write a diary. Those years of childhood go so fast. You will forget a lot and, strangely, your kids forget nearly everything except the memories that are preserved and revived. Our kids love going back through albums and old videos, and I purr with pride to see how much they enjoy reliving those earlier times. They might even get the idea they had a pretty good childhood!
10. Invest in teachers
Naomi and I made an effort to get to know our kids’ teachers. Naomi did a lot of volunteering in their classrooms and both of us helped on trips and camps. I won’t say we did it as a manipulative ploy, but if we were into manipulation it would have been a great technique to get special attention for our kids! It stands to figure that if the teacher likes you, they are hardly likely to neglect your children. All three of our kids went through the same primary school and as our youngest was finishing there, we had an afternoon tea at home with all their teachers from over the years. It was lovely, because they were friends.
11. Connect with stories
Human brains are wired for stories, and stories were always a wonderful way to connect with our kids – reading together, bedtime stories, made-up stories, stories while walking to school. I don’t know if they learned much useful information from Spot or Mr Magnolia, but it was a rich part of our relationship. (Well, I enjoyed it, anyway).
12. Get them to love books
Quite simply, reading for pleasure leads to academic success. All of our kids loved books from an early age. If they couldn’t sleep, rather than come out and grizzle to us, they were told to grab a book from the stack by their bed and read until they were sleepy. I think it was Groucho Marx who said, “Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. And inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read anyway.”
13. Go to everything
We have sat through hours and hours of tuneless droning concerts, weird plays and boring assemblies. I wouldn’t have immediately put these in the ‘good old days’ category but I think it has been important to honour and attend the special events in our kids lives. (Shudder). I just realised, if I ever have grandchildren I will have to go to their concerts too. I hope by then I will have hearing aids I can turn off.
14. Anger doesn’t work
Anger never delivered the results I wanted it to, which is a pity because I do it spectacularly well. I might have had justice on my side when they misbehaved but if I yelled at my kids, it just stunk up the atmosphere and stressed our relationship. The thing that helped me was pausing. If I could pause and cool down before I spoke or acted, I could usually find a more creative and productive way to respond to their misdemeanours. “Kids, run down to your bedroom for a while. You are going to be safer there.”
15. Parent as a team
I have immense respect for Naomi’s wise and intuitive parenting skills, but sometimes we would have differences of opinion and our kids would spot that. The trick was to defer to each other in front of them and disagree in private.
16. No favourites
Nothing is as toxic to a child’s heart as believing they are their parent’s less-loved child. Of course your kids will vary in their abilities, compliance and cuddliness, but you have to lock down that very human tendency to ‘rate’ them.
17. Attend to atmosphere
Atmosphere is how your home makes your kids feel. Sometimes the atmosphere can be flavoured by too much busyness, pressure or grumpiness. I would have to ask myself, “How has my mood and attitude been to my kids? Have I been interested, friendly and engaged? Or distant and grumpy?”
18. Sigh and shrug
At times they will make mistakes, break things, disappoint you and even break your heart. They have to – they are human. Sometimes we should respond in ways to help them make better choices next time (which is my definition of discipline), but other times it’s better to just respond with a sympathetic sigh. “Oh dear. I know, you didn’t mean to. Nevermind.” Grudges and resentment serve absolutely no purpose.
19. Parenting takes grace
I remember being told that if you have teenagers and you want companionship, responsiveness and obedience, get a dog. For long stretches of parenting, especially during their adolescence, not much comes back to you in the way of affection. That’s tough, but that’s normal. They probably don’t know how to respond to you at the moment. Just keep up a pleasant, gracious barrage of interest and love, and the thaw will come.
20. I am tough
Tough, as in resilient. And my wife is even tougher. We can spend all night at A&E. We can survive a week in a tent at a youth group camp. We can eat terrible food our children proudly cook for us. We can sit through recorder recitals. We can hug a child who smells of vomit. Parenthood has shown me that I am tougher than I thought possible.
21. Make friends with them
Over and over again. Make friends with your toddler, and then again with your school-age child, your adolescent, and your young adult. They change and change and change. You have to keep making contact and building the relationship.
22. Let them be
Parenting is more like unwrapping a gift than shaping a life. You will have – and should have – dreams for your kids but it is far more important to let them discover their own dreams. They may be like you, but they are not you, and so their talents and tastes and ambitions might be completely different.
23. Know yourself
Your children reflect back to you an image of yourself. If you get the feeling from their reactions that you are lovely – you probably are! If they reflect back that you are sour and grumpy, that could be the truth too. Introspection about our parenting style is always worthwhile. As we know what our strengths and weaknesses are, we can change. If you are brave, ask your spouse, “What am I like as a parent? How can I do better?” But don’t ask your dog. They always think you are wonderful.
24. Don’t sacrifice your children on the altar of work
(Or study or tidiness or anything). I have a few regrets, but I have never regretted making parenting and family life a priority.
25. It’s worth it
I cannot recall a single conversation with Naomi about actually wanting to have children. To tell you the truth, Naomi and I were family-planning disasters and our kids just tumbled into our lives, ready or not. But what a wonderful bunch of ‘mistakes’ they have been! The last 25 years has been a wild ride, stressful at times, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
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