by Dr. Kevin Leman
Take a Little Trip Down Memory Lane...
More has changed during the past fifty years than you think, and it has everything to do with how you parent.
Take a look at the 1950s, for instance—the decade of great optimism. Ads from the day that depicted the future showed men and women lounging on the decks of antigravity homes and smiling as they boarded air buses. Back then, people believed that technology would make life a breeze, freeing up more leisure time to spend together.
But is that really what happened? Seems to me that instead of using technology to our advantage, we let technology take advantage of us. Even with all our time-saving inventions, our pace of life has increased. Check out the magazine articles on squeezing the most out of every second, including how to lose weight faster, find the most healthy fast food, and make friends faster. They're all aimed at our "instant" world.
Time, once valued less than money, is now valued more than money. While people used to sacrifice time to save money, now they sacrifice money to save time. We pay top dollar for express mail, home grocery delivery service, and one-hour photo development.
And just who do you think is watching? Your kids! What they see Mom or Dad do, they'll also do. (Even if they say during the teenage years that they don't want to be anything like you, guess what? The apple doesn't fall far from the tree!)
Children will always follow your lead. If you are constantly on the go, with a to-do list whose weight would kill an elephant, your children will see that. Interestingly, one study found that time spent on homework more than doubled for six- to eight-year-olds between 1981 and 1997.2 At Toys"R"Us online, you can even buy PDAs (personal digital assistants) for kids to schedule homework between soccer practice and Cub Scouts. To me, the idea that an elementary-school child would need this is, simply, frightening.
Kids today are stressed at every turn, inundated with material things and experiences in such rapid-fire motion that it would be impossible for them to keep up. As a result, there's increasing concern from teachers, youth leaders, and others who work with children, because more and more kids are feeling burned out by their late teens. Claire, a ten-year-old, told her counselor at school,
I can never do enough to make my parents happy. They always want more. Mom wants me to make more friends. My dad wants me to be a better student. All I want is to sit by myself in my room and dream sometimes... without having to go anywhere.
Claire, by the way, is almost a straight-A student, plays the flute, is on the soccer team at school, is involved in 4-H, takes care of her kindergarten brother for two hours after school until her parents get home, and sometimes even makes dinner for the family.
The first time you looked into your child's eyes, what did you see?
If you're like most parents, you saw potential... and the fulfillment of your dreams. This kid, you thought to yourself, is going to be the best kid ever. Oh, the things she is going to accomplish!
From that moment on, it's easy to fall into the trap of upping the ante on your child and yourself. The tendency, especially for first-time parents, is to try to create a superbaby or supertoddler. So you enroll your child in ballet, play groups, gymnastics, and many other activities—all in the name of good physical activity and "socialization." But it's sort of like reserving a church for your daughter's wedding before she's old enough to date. You're getting way ahead of yourself!
First things first. The most important thing you can do for your child is to allow him or her time to bond with you. Bonding doesn't happen in a day or a month... or even a year. It's a slow, steady process based on love, commitment, and time. The more you strengthen that bond between you and your child—by doing fun things together, by playing in the park together, by holding hands with each other—the more you'll create a lifelong bond.
The time of early childhood is precious—kids are so imaginative and such a blast. They're just thrilled to have your attention. Did you know, Mom, that you walk on water in a toddler's eyes? And did you know, Dad, that you are the "biggest, toughest daddy in the whole world," even if you can't bench-press eighty pounds in your wildest dreams? In the eyes of your son or daughter, you are the center of the world.
So don't rush it. Don't up the ante by running from place to place to keep a schedule or by forcing constant socialization with other children through multiple activities. All too soon your child is going to enter preschool or kindergarten and develop other friends outside your family circle. Instead of playing with your child, you'll be watching your child play with someone else. So why hurry the process along? Enjoy the ride—with your child!
And did you know that you're not a rotten parent if you don't enroll your child in preschool? Nobody in my generation went to preschool, and we (at least most of us) seem to be doing just fine. Who says you have to do certain things? Don't fall into the trap of doing what's considered "normal." Why would you want "normal" anyway? If you want a normal child, just look around someday when you're strolling through the mall. You'll find plenty of toddlers throwing tantrums by the carousel horse ride when Momma won't shell out the bucks, preteens sassing their mothers in front of Claire's boutique, and teens giving their parents the eye roll... and walking twenty steps behind to make sure they can't be faintly connected to their families. That's normal. Is that really what you want?
I didn't think so.
Many people talk as if your kids will be outcasts for life if you don't start them early in a variety of programs to stretch their bodies, minds, and social skills. Having a friend over to play when your child is three years or younger can be a fun experience, but play groups and play experiences are, in my opinion, vastly overrated. What's far more important is what's happening between you and your child.
If you resist the trend to sign up for everything in sight, you and your child will be better off. In other words, don't sign up your two-year-old for tap dancing because you're worried she doesn't seem very social. Believe me, your child will have plenty of time to socialize with other kids when she's in school. (And you'll have plenty of time to socialize with other parents during all the school activities in the classroom and on field trips.) But how your child will relate to those other children will have everything to do with how much she has bonded with you—and how comfortable she feels with herself as a result.
Besides, just wait. By the time your daughter is thirteen, she'll be so social it'll drive you crazy. Every time you pick up the phone, you'll have to suffer through two girls talking—and giggling away—about the secrets of who they think likes whom and who said something really dumb in class.
As children get into the school years, they will naturally socialize and develop relationships. Peers will become increasingly important as your child grows. His activity level outside the home will increase each year—and so will yours! After all, who drives him from point A to point B?
So why hurry up the pace any more by upping the ante on yourself and your child? Give yourself and your child quiet downtimes to breathe, to laugh, to take a nap, to just stare out the window, to walk through the fall leaves. There's a big difference between having to run on the activity wheel at times and having to run on it all the time, never able to get off. One can be exhilarating; the other is exhausting.
If you're always looking harried and acting stressed from too many activities, if you're constantly talking on your cell phone and running to keep up with an overly busy schedule, and if you're constantly late, what are you teaching your child?
That kind of life is frantic and no fun. You have to simply run on the wheel, like that poor gerbil, and you're never able to get off. Is that really the message you want your child to grow up with?