I was a working parent, and I know how difficult it can be to juggle three lives simultaneously — home, work, and school — never mind the guilt that goes along with just not being there. In the best of all possible worlds, it would be better if moms were there for the formative years, bonding and not separating prematurely. We know, for instance, that children learn something at their mothers’ knees that they cannot learn anywhere else, and that is security. Furthermore, a well-bonded child does better at many things, including processing information, problem-solving, sticking with a problem longer, and experiencing benefits of cognitive, language, and social development.
However, this is not ideal, and mothers have to work to make ends meet — sometimes holding down more than two jobs at a time. Whatever your specific family situation may be, there is a lot that parents can do to turn a potentially negative experience into a win-win situation for the whole family. In all life’s situations, it is important to know the rules.
Rule 1: Invest in Family Meetings
Sit down as a family in a neutral space and have an empathic family meeting where the entire family, including the children, brainstorm how to create ways to participate in the family so that the family system works and is on a positive course. This requires authenticity from all members involved, including mom and dad. This family meeting works for all family structures, including the single parent. It is based on the premise that each member gets an established time to speak and an established time to listen, which is the best way to communicate. Moreover, each party is invested in the outcome, has a role in creating the rewards and consequences for appropriate behavior in this family model, and, therefore, learns positive ways to solve family problems. Since all family members are part of the whole, it is important to reinforce their membership by being respectful and mutual.
In fact, these are the rules of the Empathic conversation, which also include:
1. No humiliating, shameful, or embarrassing statements;
2. Listen with your full attention;
3. Invest each participant in the conflict resolution process, with rewards and consequences for appropriate behavior;
4. Employ mutuality;
5. Use trust based on experience;
6. Teach that each member of the family can be counted on, no matter what — reliability is key
The empathic conversation should take place at least once a week in a neutral and safe space. I always recommend the kitchen table — the alchemical heart of the house, where all things mix together for nurturing and transformation, such as baking and cooking food. It is important not to have this discussion in anyone’s office, study, or bedroom — no one’s power place. This approach teaches role modeling of the highest order — valuing yourself and others — and it reconnects us to our family so that we can check in once a week and see where everyone is, how they are doing and how they are feeling. This process can also be used to reassign and rotate chores. By investing your children in the process, they are more likely to follow the rules.
Rule 2: Structure in as many things as possible
For example, get enough sleep, give up on being perfect, and keeping a perfect house. Relationships are much more important and much more flexible than these goals. If you make mistakes and are easier on yourself, you open up a space for others to be more human and misstep every once and a while. On the other hand, it is important to give yourself the best chance for the least stressful day.
First, set an alarm clock allowing you time to wake up both yourself and your family, making sure that everyone has enough time for personal hygiene, to prepare breakfast, take necessary vitamins and meds and get to school and work on time.
Grocery shop with a weekly list, including the lunch preferences of your children. During the school year, pack lunches the night before. Invest your children in what they may like for lunch. Don’t force-feed them — it may contribute to eating problems later.
Lay out younger children’s clothes by mutual agreement the night before, allowing children the choice to build confidence and competence. In some cases, you may even want to dress younger children in things that won’t wrinkle. This can save a lot of time on a busy morning.
Print up an activity sheet and pin it to your children’s doors, giving them a heads-up so that they have the freedom to plan personal time. Add to the activity schedule a list of chores attached to a weekly calendar for rewards and consequences. Use a visual form of awards such as stars posted where all can see.
Finally, schedule play time for yourself and your family – not always together.
Rule 3: If childcare is a must, do your homework.
If you are enrolling your child in a childcare center, check out not only the facility but also their time schedule, curriculum, discipline, and emergency policies — noting especially if it fits your personal discipline and emergency style. Also, check their ratio of teachers, aids per child, and their general state of overall cleanliness. You can also read online reviews and testimonials of current and former parents whose children are attending or have attended the childcare center and check into the center’s accreditation record. The better the job you do in the beginning, the lower your stress level later.
If your child doesn’t go to nursery school or a child care center, make sure you check out the references carefully of those you hire to be caretakers. If your child must stay home alone after school, be sure you teach them how to safely do this, including keeping doors locked, not letting anyone but immediate family in, and not playing with fire, stove, or any dangerous implement. Have an emergency plan and a responsible adult checking in with your children at regular intervals, if only by phone. Most importantly, be sure your child is old enough and responsible enough to do this. I don’t recommend leaving anyone under 13 years of age home alone, and certainly no one with a mental handicap.
Rule 4: Know the House Rules.
Create house rules with your family that can be adhered to and make life easier for the entire family. These should include common courtesy, respect, reliability, responsibility, and fairness.
Chores that gain rewards should be added to the house rules, and tokens that can be cashed in for personal wishes can be established weekly. These reward tokens should not include money but rather private time with mom and dad; objects desired (such as a new lunch box, a new bike, a new art kit); an outing with friends, or a movie. Children are part of a family, and you don’t want them to feel that they are paid for their membership. On the other hand, allowances should be established for each child because, as a part of this family, there is the consideration for their special financial needs. This teaches responsibility in money matters.
A specific bedtime, study time, and computer schedule should be included.
Whenever possible, be present for as many school-related and extracurricular activities as possible. Children need you to be invested in them, and you need to know what is going on in their lives — school and social. Scrutiny is not spying. Parents are entitled to parent, and they need to know where their children are, when, and with whom. But this must be done respectfully by maintaining healthy boundaries between you and your children.
Finally, create ways to bond and be there even when you are not by recording bedtime stories on audio tapes and even being a little creative in making up bedtime stories by using your children’s names as characters in a tape-recorded story.
Rule 5: Work Together to Reduce Stress
Learn how to relax and teach your children how to relax. It is simple! Simple exercises take the edge off. The key is to have a regular time to do it.
• Meditate using progressive relaxation techniques. This can be a lifelong practice to both reduce stress and, by so doing, enhance learning.
• Take a warm soak bath. Gift yourself with a time-out.
• Ask for help when needed. Kids love to chip in when asked. Learn to delegate. No one can do everything all of the time.
• Be the adult and create quality time with your children, giving each child private time whenever possible.
• Communicate, connect, listen and pay attention — know your child. Value yourself, and you will value your child.
• Don’t burden your child with your problems — let them have their childhood. If you need help, seek professional help and go to a counselor.
• Be reliable so that your children can count on you.
• Most importantly, have empathy for yourself and have empathy for your children — this will teach them empathy, the best protection for getting along in the world.
Finally, you and your child are on a journey together — honor the process. Recognize that while no family situation may be perfect, as working parents, you always have the power to create the best possible scenario for you and your children. Remember as you are following these tips that the only thing you really have to do is meet your child’s needs, nurture them, and be there by being reliable.