BEING a working parent has never been easy, but a new level of difficulty has been added - now many mums and dads are working from home and trying to look after their children at the same time.
Many parents will simply be managing the best they can, and planting young children in front of the TV or leaving them with an iPad to do their school work, in order to buy time to get on with their work. But it doesn’t have to be that way, says child development expert Anita Cleare.
Cleare runs the Positive Parenting Project (anitacleare.co.uk/positive-parenting-project) and has just written.
She says: “Working parents have been told the way to be successful is to be hyper-organised, buy five years’ worth of birthday cards at once and batch-freeze meals. But that goes against the grain of what children really need from us. Good relationships with children are built on quality moments, not on constantly chivying our kids from task to task.
“To create a happy family life, working parents need to step out of our hyper-efficient work mindset and be playful and curious instead, so we can tune in to our children’s signals and understand the world from their point of view.”
Here, Cleare suggests six ways to be a happy working parent:
The biggest challenge for working parents is learning to switch between two different mindsets - work-mode and parent-mode - and now that so many parents are working from home, learning to switch seamlessly between them is even more essential.
When we’re in work-mode, we tend to be very goal-focused and task-oriented. Doing well at work means sticking to schedules, getting through tasks efficiently, focusing on outcomes and always keeping up the pace. But when it comes to family life, children need us to deploy different strengths. They need emotionally-attuned parents who are curious and playful and empathetic, who can slow down and prioritise connecting and listening over getting the job done. Children are naturally chaotic and focused on the moment. If we approach them stuck in our efficiency-focused work-mode, we quickly get frustrated with them.
Playfulness is an essential ingredient in happy families. Children and adults need it. If you take the playfulness out of parenting, all you’re left with is drudgery.
Playfulness isn’t the same as doing lots of activities. Cajoling a herd of children in and out of the car to ballet rehearsals and football matches when lockdown is over doesn’t add up to a fun family life. Similarly, while we might be stuck indoors a bit more at the moment, a bit of silliness is good for everyone.
Playfulness is the pixie dust that makes our lives feel lighter. It fuels children’s development, makes parenting enjoyable, strengthens family bonds and boosts everyone’s wellbeing.
Creating more space for playfulness will give you room to breathe, to relax, to laugh a little more (and shout a little less) and enjoy being a member of your family.
When we’re stuck in ‘get-the-job-done’ work-mode, we tend to focus on all those tasks that need completing during family time. Feeding, washing, laundry, spellings homework, reading, telling off, chasing down lost items...
But families are made up of relationships, not tasks. If we shift our thinking about parenting away from a list of activities to be completed or a project to be undertaken and see our job as parents in terms of building relationships with our children, that opens the door to a very different dynamic.
Building a relationship isn’t a job that can be ticked off a ‘To Do’ list. It’s about small choices we make on a day-to-day level. It’s about chatting and laughing and slowing down for a few minutes to listen when our child has something to say - really listen with all our attention, not just half our brains. Because it’s through listening that we connect with our children on a deeper level and get to know them. Building relationships isn’t about large quantities of time, it’s about quality moments.
Mustering the energy to manage wayward children on top of working is a big challenge. When we’re busy, it’s easy to slip into the trap of ignoring children when they’re being good and overreacting to behaviour we don’t like. Your attention means everything to your children, and they’ll do pretty much anything to get it.
Working parents are often racked with guilt about not being able to give their children enough attention. But it’s not how much attention we give that’s the crucial issue, it’s where we direct it. Creating a happy family dynamic isn’t about finding extra hours (or minutes), it’s about parenting smarter by targeting your attention towards the behaviour you want to encourage.
Avoid constant firefighting by setting some clear, simple and positive ground rules. Children are used to having golden rules at school or nursery, so have some at home too.
The best rules help children focus on what good behaviour looks like so they can do it more often. If the kids are constantly bickering, introduce a ground rule like ‘be a team’ to encourage alternative behaviour. If mean comments are the issue, then ‘use kind words’ might be a good rule. Or, if physical aggression is the problem, ‘be gentle’. Use praise and attention smartly to positively reinforce the behaviour you want to encourage.
Parental involvement is a great thing. But taking over and doing too much for our children isn’t good for them. And it also risks stretching parents beyond what’s humanly possible. In order to develop good self-esteem and life skills, children need to do things for themselves, to make mistakes and to learn from their failures.
Running around picking up after children who are old enough to do things for themselves is not an act of love, it’s an act of developmental sabotage. And it means you’ll never have enough time to enjoy being a member of your family. Sometimes, when it comes to parenting, less really is more.