Sunday, December 22, 2013

Unsolicited Advice for New Parents

Congratulations on your new baby.  You've just been given an amazing gift that is like no other in this life.  If you're like me, your world just changed in about a hundred million ways.  I bet you're feeling a little sleep deprived, huh?  Yep.  That will get better once the new love of your life learns to sleep through the night.  But your sleep will never be the same, as you'll always have one ear and one eye half open, listening and looking to protect your little one from all harm, even when they're almost as big as you are because they're growing faster than the national debt.

Can I give you a few words of wisdom?  Please?  Because I really wish I would have listened to some of this advice when my oldest kids were just little bitty babes.

You might be asking yourself, "Who is this woman to give me unsolicited advice?"  Good question.  I'm probably nobody special to you, but I like to think of myself as a special Momma to four truly amazing people.  They think I'm the bees' knees. As of today, my kids are 10, 8, 6 and 3.  Over the course of the past ten and a half years, I've picked up a few things here and there about kids and parenting.  Have I gotten it all perfect?  If you know me, you're probably laughing out loud right now or screaming something like "Are you kidding?" at your screen.  If we haven't yet met, let me assure you.  I am nowhere close to having this parenting thing down pat, but there are a few things I'm pretty sure I think I know.  Maybe tomorrow all of that will change, but for today, here's what I think you should keep in mind.

1. Think long term.  Elf on the Shelf?  50 Christmas gifts from Santa under the tree?  Gift bags for all 38 kids at your child's birthday party?  Think about it l-o-n-g term.  You set the bar when your kids are young and it's way harder to lower it than it is to raise it.

If you start Elf on the Shelf when your kid is born, you may well be coming up with creative ideas for that creepy little mischief maker for 10 plus years.  If you have more than one kid, you may be doing that every December for decades.  Decades, my friend.  That's a lot of creativity.  It's not like you can just up and say, "Buddy has been recalled to the North Pole and won't be back" without traumatizing your children.  If you're good with doing that for so long, have at it.  Just think long term before you commit yourself to it.

The same thing goes with Santa, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny.  I'm not one of those people who think these games are lying to your kids.  (Please don't go there on this post, it's not the point.) We love these pretend creatures at our house and the magical quality they help bring to holidays and special occasions.  BUT I do believe you need to have a clear exit strategy from the beginning.  Your kids are eventually going to figure this out.  You need to know what you're going to say BEFORE THIS HAPPENS and you need to be on the same page as your spouse.  In our house, that means we answer questions with questions.  "Mom, is Santa real?" is followed by a quick "What do you think, Kiddo?"  They all know I bring the Easter baskets and my oldest figured out the Tooth Fairy with a  triumphant, "I KNEW IT!" when I told him it was me.  But he's reluctant to let go of Santa.  When he asked last year, I answered with, "There are some things that once you know, you can never unknow.  Are you sure you want me to answer that question?"  Instead of plunging ahead as he had about the Tooth Fairy, he simply looked at me and said, "Never mind.  I don't want to know," and walked out of the room.

***Here's a little bonus bit of unsolicited advice for you.  I don't think it's get-its-own-number worthy, so I'll just slip it in here with a couple of these little fellas. ***  With Santa, we tell our kids that the red-suited men they see at the mall and in movies are Santa's helpers.  That there is no way for him to be everywhere at once but that these guys help him out.  This is, I believe, paving the way for us to reveal that, yes, we parents are the ones who leave the gifts under the tree in the spirit of Saint Nicholas.  St. Nick was a real person, by the way, and my kids know his story.  We tie him to the Santa tradition and talk about how he gave out of a love for Christ. Just last week, my daughter and I had a conversation about this and I asked her how she thought Santa got into our house since we don't have a chimney.  Her answer, "I think he gives the parents the presents and they put them under the tree."  These little conversations are my way of easing them into the truth about the Big Guy in Red. ***End of bonus content. ***

And then there are the birthday parties.  Oh. My. Goodness.  In my early parenting years, I was known to go a little overboard.  It can be fun, but don't kid yourself when you throw a huge party for your one-year-old.  It's not about your kid, it's about you.  They won't remember any of it, probably won't have that great of a time and you shouldn't go into debt just to buy them a toy for every month they have been alive.  Chances are, they don't need it.  (See #2.)

Don't get me wrong, my kids have GREAT birthday parties.  We usually have a lot of guests and I make them some rocking' birthday cakes.  But we don't do crazy expensive things.  They get one gift.  They make great memories.  My June born boy usually has friends over to play with water guns and on the giant water slide we make out of construction grade plastic sheeting.  The winter babes like to go the local indoor swimming pool and my April baby gets to party at the park on good weather years and at the Rec Center on colder ones.  Super fun doesn't have to be super expensive.

We don't give out treat bags to the guests.  Seriously, who was the mom who decided that the birthday kid has to give things to all the guests?  Why are goodie bags now the expected norm?  Can't kids just come, eat our cake and give presents to the birthday boy?  We have never once, since we have stopped doing this, had a single complaint.  No kids have refused to come to the next party because they didn't get a bag of dollar store goodies on their way out.

2. Less is more.  Take it from the mom who recently spent $75 and four embarrassing hours at the laundromat, using every single machine, just to get caught up on her family of six's dirty clothes. There is no good reason that any family should have that many clothes. The times when I'm able to pare down our closets and only keep the things we really need and actually wear are so much easier to keep up with than the times we don't.  This is, of course, like so many other things, easier said than done.

This is the single hardest thing on this list for me.  Every time I purge anything from our house we manage to fill it up again in what seems like minutes.  Luckily for me, our house is tiny and that alone helps me in this area.

I tend to be sentimental with the kids' stuff.  I've gotten better about giving away their outgrown clothes because I've found that I get great joy out of seeing other kids in their stuff.  It always takes me back to when my kids were that size and I love those memories.

Toys are harder.  When purging I tend to get caught up in who gave them, how much they cost, and how fun they could be.  The reality is, none of that matters if they kids have so much that they can't find anything to play with through the mess.  Over the years we've whittled it down some, in that we mainly have just a few classes of toys left: Legos and building toys, action figures and vehicles, costumes and toy weapons (Don't judge me.  I have three boys.), American Girl dolls and Barbies, musical instruments, and stuffed animals.  We have a few other random things here and there, but these are our main bins.  Having them sorted helps with clean up and allows them to be easily found.

3. Ask for and be willing to receive help.  It's hard.  It's humbling.  Do it anyway.  When your mother-in-law, neighbor, best friend or Sunday school class wants to clean your house, make you a meal or watch your kids for an hour, LET THEM.  You need breaks.  You can't do it all.  None of us can.  Don't think it makes you less of a great parent, wife and person.  Having a little help can actually make you more of a great parent, wife and person.  When you're not bogged down with the mundane and have actually gotten more than two hours of sleep in a row, you're better.  Let the people who love you bless you, especially in your less than stellar moments, like when you're sick, pregnant (or both!), or just running ragged.

4. Let your kids take risks.  Quit hovering.  Let your two-year-old climb up the steps at the playground without you holding her hand.  It may feel like you're being a lazy parent if you step back and just watch but you're not.  You're giving your child the chance to set her own boundaries, to take some early risks and to gain her first bit of independence.  There will be some other parents who may give you the stink eye or feel the need to report your child's activity to you but hold your ground.  It's better for your kid and less exhausting for you.  No, I'm not saying that you should let your just-barely-walking 14-month-old climb alone to the top of the ten foot slide or leave your three-year-old unattended at the fish pond.  That's not letting them take risks, that's just being stupid.  Know the difference.

5. Don't do everything for your kids.  Give them chores.  Make them clean up their own messes, physical and otherwise.  This doesn't mean you abandon them.  Just like leaving a little one alone at the fish pond is just stupid, so can be leaving them alone in this.  You must train them and give them age appropriate things to do.  Don't wait until they're teenagers and then expect them to suddenly be super glad that you're delegating them laundry duty.  I'm pretty sure that won't go well for you.  If they've been a part of doing laundry since they were big enough to help pull the clean clothes out of the dryer they'll take it better.  Don't get me wrong, they're probably still not going to be thrilled, because who really likes folding laundry?   But at least when they leave your home they'll know how to do laundry.

I want my kids to be self-sufficient adults.  When they move out, I want them be successful.  As hard as it may be for me as a momma to do, I know that this means they will need to do things without my help or even my advice.  I want my future-daughters and son-in-law to appreciate that I took the time to teach my kids to do things, not to curse me for coddling them and teaching them nothing.  That's why we're taking the time now to teach them things like how to cook, clean and change a toilet seat.

6. Realize that you don't know it all and don't judge the parenting choices of others too harshly.  Just because you read Dr. So-and-So's Big Book of Parenting or found something worked with your oldest kid doesn't mean you're a parenting guru.  It also doesn't mean that the mom who is raising her kids in just the opposite way you are raising yours is wrong.  Some children need hard and fast rules and boundaries.  Others thrive in a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants lifestyle.  Just because you do well in one doesn't mean the other doesn't work for someone else.

7. Don't take yourself too seriously.  Take time to be silly.  You know what I do with my kids that is totally crazy?  I spray them with the hose from the kitchen sink.  In the kitchen.  When they are fully dressed.  At random.  Why?  Because they think it's hilarious.  Some day, when they talk to their shrink about me, I hope they mention not only times I totally lost it in a yelling fit but also the times I totally lost it in silliness.

8. Build traditions.  They don't have to be big or expensive or set in stone.  Just make them.  In our house, we have several things we do on an annual basis.  Daddy takes Baby Girl to the Daddy-Daughter dance in April.  The boys and I have a night out at the bowling alley in May.  Baby Girl and I have now attended four Girl Scout Mother-Daughter Campouts.  Our entire family spends the Fourth of July in a nearby little town that puts on quite the extravaganza.  We also do a lot of other little things on a more regular basis.  We go to church together every single weekend.  We pray, sing and read at bedtime.  We say silly things like "I love you.  I love you most!  I love you more than most!" to each other almost every day.

9. Be involved.  Coach their sports, even if you don't know first base from the 50 yard line.  Learn it.  Volunteer at Scouts and in their classrooms.  Even if you can't be the leader, help out or cheer them on.  Show up for games, recitals and class parties.  Know their friends.  Make yours THE house to be at, even if it's small and totally not HGTV worthy.  If you can stock it with popsicles and cheese balls and make kids feel welcome, they won't care what size it is or that you don't have matching throw pillows on your couch.  They'll just know that they're welcome, loved and safe.  Isn't that what we all want to know anyway?

10. Take pictures of yourself with your kids.  Life is short.  You don't know what tomorrow will bring.  Memories fade, especially when you're young. If, God forbid, something happened to me tomorrow, I would want to leave tangible evidence for my kids of the good things we did together.  Things they could look back on and say, "My mom did that with me.  I don't really remember it, but look how happy we were.  She must have really loved me."

Some of this you will think is awesome advice.  Some of it you may think is total bunk.  I'm alright with that.  What works for my family may not work for yours.  I get that.  If you're an extravagant gift-giver, give extravagant gifts, even to kids who attend your family birthday parties.  If you love shoes, have 50 pairs in your closet.  I'm not judging you on that.  Do what makes you and your spouse and your kids happy.  In the end, that's where the good stuff is.  Go get the good stuff.  And some sleep, because, Newbie, you're gonna need it.


What would you add to this list?  What is the best advice you received as a new parent?  Did you follow it or just wish you had later?