God help me, being a parent is hard. It's not necessarily the basic Abraham Maslow's “hierarchy of needs” stuff that gets me, although providing for one's family is a daily pressure. No, what makes parenting so tough (at least for me) is the knowledge that I—quirky, flawed, only human me—am responsible for how my kids will “turn out.” There are 58,000 parenting books for sale on Amazon right now and thousands of parenting studies published every year. Sometimes I think I haven't read enough of them; other times I think I've read way too much. Either way, here are three bits of research-backed advice that have resonated with me recently. I hope they will help you, too.
#1 Let your kids get bored. As the mother of two girls younger than four, sometimes I feel like a cruise director. It takes dozens of play ideas to keep them busy for an entire rainy day here in Portland, Ore., and by the end of it I'm wrecked. Yet scheduling our kids with tons of classes and activities may backfire, according to a 2014 study in Frontiers in Psychology. The more structured activities such as soccer lessons or dance classes the six-year-old subjects had, the less “self-directed executive function” they showed. This mental process basically helps children regulate their emotions and set and reach goals on their own. And it has been linked to better health, grades and a more stable work life later on. So what is the alternative to planning out their time? Let your kids get bored and figure out what to do on their own, says psychologist Michael Ungar, co-director of the Resilience Research Center at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. “Boredom in our context of hyperstimulation may give children opportunities to exercise creativity and develop initiative, persistence and a sense that they can influence their world,” he says. Another bonus of this more hands-off approach? Maybe Mommy can flip through a magazine once in awhile, or, I dunno, take a shower.
#2 Thou shalt not “snowplow.” Like helicopter parents, snowplow parents tend to hover—they want to smooth the path in front of their growing children, clearing away obstacles. Unfortunately, research in self-determination theory shows that doing so undermines a person's sense of competence and autonomy, leading to higher levels of anxiety and depression, lower grades in school and less satisfaction with life—even into adulthood. “If there's not enough parental involvement, that's not good. If there's too much, that's not good either,” says Holly H. Schiffrin, a developmental psychology researcher and associate professor at the University of Mary Washington. “Even in my college classroom I've had some parents e-mail me to set up their kids' class schedule or call me about grades I gave on their assignments. I tell them that their children need to make an appointment to speak to me about it.” When parents do not adjust their involvement to a level that is developmentally appropriate as their children get older, the kids end up lacking the skills they need to function as adults, Schiffrin says.
#3 Secure your own oxygen mask first. If you are struggling to breathe, you are no help to anyone! The evidence for taking care of your own needs first in terms of parenting couldn't be clearer, especially when it comes to addressing unresolved medical and mental health issues. Mothers are more likely to either ignore or overreact to kids' misbehavior when they are mired in depression, for example, according to a two-year-long study in Psychological Science. Adults with ADHD also improve their parenting skills when they get treated, Pennsylvania State University researchers have found. All of our day-to-day health-related activities matter, too. A 2015 study of national health data from the U.K. suggests that parents' way of life may be just as important as genetics in passing down obesity. Further evidence: children in a London School of Economics and Political Science study from 2014 who had two overweight biological parents were 27 percent more likely than other kids to be overweight, yet adopted children of overweight parents were almost as equally more likely to be heavy—21 percent.
Okay, Universe, I get it. It's time to make a date with my New Balance sneakers. The size of my jeans may not matter much to me, but showing my kids a healthier way to live? That truly does.