I’ve been encouraged lately by a slew of online articles focusing on the importance of self-care. It’s one of the fundamental truths of successful parenting: Happy parents are better parents, which makes for happier kids. Self-care is not only unselfish, but mandatory for maintaining our sanity while raising healthy children.
But even with all this positive focus on self-care, there’s a vital downstream benefit that I believe is overlooked in the conversation. Self-care not only helps us to be calmer, happier parents, it’s an absolute must for teaching our children how to conduct healthy, respectful relationships.
In this sense, self-care isn’t just something we occasionally treat ourselves to like a bubble bath, a jog, or dinner out with a friend or spouse (or even the periodic “check-in” that mindfulness expert Tasha Lansbury recommends in the podcast we recently recorded together). Rather, it is a consistent consideration of our own personal needs and boundaries. This recognition will affect the way we structure our home environment and, most importantly, the way we respond to our children moment to moment.
When kids are having difficulties engaging appropriately with peers or adults, it is often because they aren’t clearly perceiving the boundaries and perspectives of others. This is understandable if parents haven’t consistently defined and asserted theirs from the start. It is an unintended consequence of prioritizing our children’s needs and desires over our own. We’ll always be our children’s most formative relationship model, so we can’t expect them to be sensitive to the needs of others when they haven’t seen that those needs exist in us.
While I don’t recall infant specialist Magda Gerber using the term ‘self-care’, she was adamant that we treat parenting as a relationship between two whole people from Day One. She insisted that consideration for ourselves should be an integral aspect of our parent-child relationship — as it would be in any other relationship. She understood that while raising children requires a great deal of self-sacrifice, erasing ourselves to serve our children creates resentment for us and insecurity for them. Magda encouraged parents to clearly and confidently communicate their needs, because children can’t flourish without clear boundaries and confident leaders.
Which might mean making that cup of tea we crave even while the baby fusses (“I hear you telling me something, and I’ll be back in two minutes to see what you need.”), or feeling confident about weaning our toddler because we want to (“This will be the last time we nurse, and then we will snuggle instead.”). It certainly means confidently blocking our children from grabbing, hitting, pinching, or climbing on us rather than tentatively asking them to please stop and expecting that to be enough.
Here are some basic ways we care for ourselves while caring for our children:
We give value to our day-to-day needs, understanding the difference between our children’s needs and their wants (or habits).
For example, children need to be touched and held, but this need isn’t constant. And being picked up and carried is not a need at all. With that understanding, we can provide children the physical affection they need on our terms, in a manner that is comfortable, convenient and welcome to us.
We needn’t feel obliged to pick them up every time they request it, or to carry them around on our back while we do other things, or to squeeze them in when our other child is already on our lap (which isn’t likely to serve or satisfy either child). Instead we can (and should) be direct and honest in asserting our wishes: “You want me to pick you up, but I can’t (or don’t want to) right now. In a few minutes, I’ll be sitting on the sofa and I’d love for you to join me for a cuddle.” Or, “Your sister is sitting with me right now, but I see you really want to join in. I won’t let you” (while we capably hold our child off of us with our hand outstretched). That gives both children the positive message that we are not only taking care of your own body, but also that we value our one-on-one moments with them.
We structure our environment so that boundaries are built-in.
For example, children are wired to learn, which they do by exploring and testing their environments. Providing babies and toddlers with a completely safe, enclosed, appropriate spaces to explore prevents them from invading unsafe areas and our personal belongings. This not only encourages their uninterrupted play but also relieves us of the duty of constant supervision, saving us the annoyance of needing to protect our children and our stuff and constantly say “no.”
We calmly and confidently just say no.
There are also countless times that we do need to say a clear “no” (and then demonstrate through our actions that we really mean it), though we might not use that actual word. We’ll ideally assert ourselves with confidence and finality, a period at the end of our sentences.
“You want me to keep playing. I hear that! But now I’m going to take a break and make dinner.”
“No, I can’t give you another cookie tonight. I hear how much you want one.”
“I won’t let you walk across this street without holding my hand.”
And then the really hard part… making peace with the idea that our children are very likely to react by whining, railing, sobbing, lashing out in anger. This is not only their prerogative, but the best thing that could happen, because these feelings need to be released. And chances are good that these emotions actually have little to do with us saying “no” to playing or cookies or running freely across the street. Those were merely the tipping points that helped them to vent. We’ve done well.
That will be clearer if…
We develop a healthy, accepting, letting go attitude toward our children’s emotions.
Feelings flow more easily if we don’t take them on as our work. We don’t need to fix every problem or even work our children through them. It’s exhausting. Instead, all that’s needed is to accept, acknowledge, and let the feelings be. Shifting into this mindset can certainly be challenging at first (when most of us have the instinct to do something to make the feelings pass), but it’s more positive and a relief for all concerned when we simply breathe, observe and trust.
We parent beyond the moment.
Consider our long-term parenting goals and the habits we’re creating for our children. We all resort to quick fixes sometimes, but they can make our job harder in the future. Magda used to say, “We should begin as we wish to continue.” For example, TV, videos and other screens for young children encourage passivity, which then makes it harder for them to initiate and create play for themselves.
We set limits early and approach power struggles with confident momentum.
Our interventions with kids are much more successful and graceful (relatively) when we anticipate and make a move early. I share much more about that in Confident Momentum: How to Stop Battling Your Toddler’s Resistance and Defiance.
We err on the side of less.
This might mean saying no to the stimulating late afternoon event or deciding against staying a few more minutes at the park or party (even when our kids beg us). We’ll save ourselves the headache of picking up the pieces with an overtired child.
Or it might mean realizing that offering our 2-year-old a brush and water to use on the driveway is more than enough to satisfy their desire to paint. We don’t need the extra hassle of setting up (and cleaning up) an art station.
Simple, predictable days offer us more dependable break times, because children are more likely to go with the flow when they know the routine. We need that time each day to recharge a bit and, if nothing else, think our own thoughts. If that’s not essential self-care, I don’t know what is.
Personally, I’m a fan of every kind of self-care. When my kids were small, taking time away made my heart grow fonder and helped me hold onto some semblance of personal freedom. The all-to-brief moments of “Me Time” helped me stay madly in love with my kids. The giddy (on my end, at least) reunions we’d have after even just an hour apart would do wonders for my morale, resilience and unruffledness. But it was the permission and encouragement Magda gave me to stick up for myself while engaging with my children day-to-day that helped them thrive as successful, socially aware people and made our relationships utter joy.
“A positive goal to strive for when disciplining would be to raise children we not only love, but in whose company we love being.” – Magda Gerber, Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect
I share more about setting limits with respect in my book, No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame