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An Open Letter to New Parents
Dear New Moms and Dads
This is the advice I send to all my friends when they have a baby. It’s always unsolicited, and it’s kindly meant, and it changes as time goes by and I learn more/figure out that I was full of crap when I last sent it out. At worst, I hope you get some laughs out of it (probably at my expense). At best, you’ll get something out of this that you can use. I take no credit for any of these ideas. Some of them I got from older, more experienced, parents. Some of them I figured out myself after lots of trial and even more error. Some of them might work with my kids and not for anybody else. If you try any of this stuff with your own kids, and it doesn’t work, don’t be surprised. All I know is that I’ve tried it with mine, and it does. Mostly.
Here's some (hopefully) practical stuff that you can use right now, when your child is still a baby. You’re not going to want to hear this part, but it’s important: having a baby is easy. No, really. You’ll be short on sleep. You’ll smell from not being able to take a shower when you need to. You’ll be puked on. You’ll occasionally have to touch poop. You’ll feel awful when the kid just won’t stop crying no matter what you do. You’ll be stressed, you’ll be frazzled, you’ll be frustrated, and you’ll feel like you’re going crazy. But seriously, the first six months or so are just an endurance test. Babies always cry for a reason: they’re hungry, they’re tired, they’re lonely, they’re wet or poopy, they’re otherwise uncomfortable (too hot, too cold, some part of whatever they’re wearing is chafing), they’re sick, or they’re just feeling ornery. The first few are easy to deal with. The next-to-last is harder, scarier, but handleable, especially if you have a good rapport with your pediatrician (more on that later). The last one is the most frustrating, because there’s no way you can fix it. But take heart! Sooner or later, the kid will get one of two things: 1) tired, 2) laryngitis. They usually get tired, and when they fall asleep in your arms, everything goes back to okay for a while. That’s pretty much all you need to know for the next six to eight months.
Now here comes stuff you’ll be able to use when your child is starting to learn about the world and is more able to make himself or herself understood.
This is a great gift for a new parent. It captures perfectly the sense of helpless frustration one feels when one's kid won't go to sleep and let one have grown-up time with one's spouse. Beware, however--do not give this book to someone who is offended by profanity. This book is overflowing with it.
The Only Universal Rules
There is only one hard and fast rule of parenting. This is the only thing in this little letter that I’m sure about: Never make a promise you don’t keep; never make a threat you don’t back up. This can be hard to remember, especially when you are frustrated and/or angry. You might find yourself saying something silly like, “If you don’t stop, I’m going to [insert ludicrous consequence here]!” If you let yourself say, “I’m going to turn this car around and we won’t go to Disneyworld,” you’d bloody well better be prepared to spend your vacation someplace other than Disneyworld. The reason? If you say something will happen, and it doesn’t happen, the kid won’t trust you, and they certainly won’t obey you. This I didn’t learn for myself—my father-in-law told it to me when my first son, Alex, was born. But since then, I’ve seen what happens when parents don’t follow through on their threats: they get bratty kids who don’t behave. The only downside to this is that because of one very late night when he was two months old and wouldn’t friggin’ stop crying, I promised Alex a pony if he’d just go to sleep. Ponies are expensive, and are not allowed in neighborhoods that are zoned residential. Dangit! Sooner or later, we’re going to have to move….
Gear I've found useful
Hands-free convenience. Do not use while drinking coffee. :-)
Stuff That May Work For You and Your Child
The rest of this is just stuff that seems to work for me and my kids. It might work for you and your kid, too, and it might not. I hope it will, though. So here it is, just in case.
Rude behavior is never cute. Or funny. Even if it is both cute and funny. Granted, sometimes you just have to laugh at the stuff your kid does: when you’re a year old and you throw food on the floor, you’re not being rude, you’re just trying to figure out how this gravity thing works. But when a kid is a bit older, and can understand the concept of politeness (especially at the table), rules of etiquette should be enforced. I’m not talking about which fork to use with the salad course; just simple stuff like not interrupting, using your inside voice, staying in your seat until you’re finished eating, asking to be excused, and saying please and thank you. Enforce these rules at home, and your kids will probably follow them when you go out.
When you do go out, it’ll probably be before your son or daughter is ready to follow the rules of etiquette. The kid will be a few weeks old, and you’ll just want to get. Out. Of the house. Well, that’s all well and good, but be prepared to eat your dinner cold if the baby should start to cry. This should go without saying, but you’d be amazed at how many parents take their kids out in public and let them scream in the restaurant. They may be trying to calm their baby down, but they’re still disturbing everyone within earshot. When you’re out and about with a baby, you need to be willing to remove said baby from the scene when he freaks out regardless of how inconvenient it is for you to do so. You owe this courtesy to everyone in the vicinity, and more importantly, you owe it to your child. Incidentally, the same thing holds true for a toddler having a meltdown. When your child freaks out in public, pick him or her up and walk out.* You might have to leave a half-full grocery cart. Don’t worry. The shopping will get done another time, and the store employees would rather re-shop a half-full cart than listen to your screaming toddler.
(*I’ve broken this rule a couple times, figuring that Alex was about to calm down, and figuring wrong. It’s never too late to walk out. But it does get too late to walk out with dignity….)
If You Discipline at Home, You Must Discipline Abroad
Whatever method you use to correct your kids’ behavior at home must be a method that you’re willing to employ in church, at the mall, when your kids’ teacher is visiting, whenever. They will be able to tell when you aren’t willing to take away their ice cream or turn them over your knee. And they will so take advantage of it. They don’t get that it’s going to be worse later, or else don’t care. Threats of delayed consequences (quietly growling, "When we get home you're going to get it," for example) are meaningless. So if you’re going to swat your kids' bums when they misbehave at home, you’d better be prepared to do it when they misbehave abroad.
Nothing Personal, Pops.
Don’t take your child’s behavior personally. Sooner or later, your child will (apparently) deliberately disobey you or (apparently) want nothing to do with you in favor of your spouse or another caregiver. The first time Alex pushed me away and turned to his mom it wrenched at my heartstrings. What could I have done to make my son not want me? I second-guessed all my parental decisions up to that moment. I even considered fulfilling that promise I made when he was two months old and wouldn’t. Go. To sleep. (Never mind that we haven’t got room for a pony in our backyard.) (Oh, and this is the only time I’ve broken Rule #1. So far.) Similarly, he went through a hitting phase. He wasn’t trying to hurt me, he wasn’t trying to say he didn’t like me, he was just trying to see what he could get away with. But it was very hard not to get mad at him when he kept smacking me while I was trying to change his diaper, in spite of my repeated admonitions of “No hitting.” But after a few days of gently but firmly holding his arms so he can’t hit me (or do much else) when he took a swing, he stopped**. He soon learned that he can’t cross that line. Of course, he’s testing other limits now, so “Don’t take it personally” has become something if a mantra. Your child loves you and wants your approval. But at the same time, he or she wants to be able to make his or her own decisions and doesn’t yet know what’s okay and what’s not. While the kid is figuring that out, he’s going to piss you off. But he’s not trying to. At least, he won’t be trying to piss you off until he’s about 11. So I’m told, anyway.
(**While writing/revising this letter, I’ve realized that I’d forgotten this rule, kinda. Alex is still testing boundaries, and I’ve just now noticed that I’ve been letting myself take some of his misbehavior personally and overreacting to minor stuff. Thanks for having a kid—it’s made me reexamine my own parenting.)
Books that you'll like as much as your child does
Fun poems that you and your child will both enjoy.
Shel Silverstein is a must for any child's library.
The pre-Disney Winnie-the-Pooh is enormous fun to read, especially if you assign a unique voice to each character.
Remember: Spooky Good!
Talk to your child. Actually, this is something I’d guessed at before having kids, but the last few years have confirmed that it’s a good idea. I talk to Alex (and now Zach as well) all the time. Even more importantly, I listen to what they’re saying, and say things in response. We have conversations. Granted, they weren’t very sophisticated conversations at first, but they were very important to the boys’ developing vocabulary. I have no doubt that if Melissa and I hadn’t talked to the boys as we did, they wouldn’t have anywhere near the vocabulary they do. I’ve seen kids whose parents don’t talk to them unless giving instructions (come here, sit down) or administering discipline (NO!). These kids have, as you might expect, a limited vocabulary. Now, every child is of course different, and some kids aren’t going to talk for a while, even if you act out the complete works of Shakespeare for them every evening. (More on this later.) Zach is now four years old and his vocabulary is growing quickly. By the time Alex was 18 months, he was asking fairly sophisticated (for that age) questions. But it makes sense to give them as much exposure to “language at work” as possible. Poetry, from sonnets to limericks, helps with this, too.
It’s also important to remember that even though you’re trying to have these conversations, you should say nothing in front of your child that you don’t want repeated, loudly, in mixed company. This includes, obviously, profanity, but you’d be surprised at what kids pick up on. We have a family member who we used to call “Crazy Aunt Sally” (not her real name, and from now on, not her real nickname). You can imagine why we don’t call her that anymore.
A while ago, I mentioned a couple things in passing that I said I’d talk about later. Now is the time to talk about the second one: Every kid is different. They mature at their own pace. Comparing your kid to my kid, or your first kid to your second kid, or even your kid to yourself-at-that-age isn’t all that useful. No doubt your son or daughter will be ahead of others in some areas and behind others in other areas. It almost always evens out. As long as your kid is doing most of the stuff that kids her age do, everything’s fine. Your pediatrician will let you know if there’s cause for concern.
And now we talk about the pediatrician. Find one you like, and don’t be afraid to fire them if they do or say anything that makes you uncomfortable. Your kid’s doctor needs to take your concerns seriously, even if they turn out to be nothing. If you think the doctor is wrong and there really is cause for concern, don’t hesitate to get a second opinion. If your doctor was right, you might feel silly. It’s worth the risk.
- Top 50 Open-Ended Questions for Sparking Conversation With Kids
Asking open-ended questions is a great way to get information from and bond with your children. They encourage more conversation than closed questions, which can be answered by a simple yes or no.
Spooky Good; Scary Bad
Here’s a fun one: Spooky is good; scary is bad. Every now and then, something scared Toddler Alex. He didn’t like the big elephant muppets on Sesame Street, for example. He didn’t like the noise they make, he didn’t like the way they shake the ground when they walk, he really hated their high, squeaky voices. Even the sight of just a trunk coming out of Ernie’s dresser drawer would send Alex into hiding behind the cushions, saying, “No? Scary? Off, please?” In spite of this, Alex really got a charge out of some stuff that would be scary to most other kids, but which is merely spooky to him. He loved—heck he still loves—the dark, which used to give me the willies when I was young. When he got out of bed early in the morning and followed me into the darkened living room, he would say, “Oooh, spooky!” If I turned on a light to read a book he’d ask me, “Turn off? Make spooky?” I suspect (I don’t know—I’m not a psychologist, just an observant guy.) that the reason for this is that he knows that he (or I) could turn the lights on and off whenever he wanted, while those darn elephants just showed up willy-nilly: he couldn’t control them. After I explained to him that anytime we didn’t like what was on the TV, we could (and should) just turn it off, he relaxed a little about the elephants on Sesame Street. The ones at the zoo, though, were another story. The practical upshot is this: toddler logic doesn’t necessarily make sense to adults. The best you can do is look for patterns and make use of them when possible.
Enjoy the Ride
So there you have it: the sum total of all the wisdom (or bull hockey) I’ve gathered in almost eight years of parenting, four of them with two kids. I hope you find some of it useful, or at least amusing. I’ll close with a few things that I didn’t make up but are still true, and nice to hear: You know more than you think—trust yourself. It’s not just you, it’s not just your kid—everybody freaks out/screws up/gets discouraged from time to time, but you’ll get through it. Stupider people than you raise kids to adulthood fairly regularly—you’ll probably do better than most. And finally, even though you may be in this for the rest of your lives, you’re not in this alone. When you need to, call your friends. We’re here for you.