Of all the long term investments adults can make in their own lives, parenting has to be one of the most rewarding. But like any other investment, parenting too, comes with associated risks and no guarantees of ideal return. Our children are their own unique mix of genetic potential and although they inherit family characteristics which will influence their temperament and personality, they are still highly individual. This means they can be unpredictable, exhausting, delightful and even difficult to manage at times. This, to be honest, is the reality of family life.
If we expect domestic bliss and harmony every day the likelihood is that we will be constantly disappointed. It is far better to aim for a certain level of normalcy, to be flexible and try to focus on what is truly important. Keeping everyone safe, fed, clean and generally content are the priorities and from these things, everything else can follow.
In the early years when children are young, much of our parenting is labour intensive and largely repetitive. Which means looking after our own needs, as well as our children’s, is important. It’s also essential to have fun every day and to look for activities which involve the whole family. Doing this will help to build emotional connections. Strong families, with individuals who feel united and bonded, tend to be more resilient to adversity. They also have a lower incidence of mental health issues and feel a higher level of contentment generally in their lives.
Think about the way you were parented yourself and how you felt about it. Every parent was once a child themselves and will have developed some ideas around how they would like to raise their own children. Children who see their parents as fallible and capable of making mistakes learn that this is ok. Trying your best, accepting the times this is not possible and being fair on yourself are so important.
Family rituals are a great way of building security and fond memories. So is humour and not taking each other too seriously all the time. Every individual in the family brings their own unique blend of personality traits, so try to accept what you cannot change and be grateful for what you have.
For the motivated parent who is keen to boost communication with their pre-verbal baby, sign language is one option. Supporters of this say the ideal time to start is when the baby is aged 6-9 months. By then, babies have developed some control over their hand and body movements. It is not necessary to subscribe to an expensive baby sign language programme, though this is an option of course.
Parents and their babies have always communicated between themselves and developed little cues or signals which indicate meaning and intent.
Start off with nursery rhymes which have accompanying hand movements such as “Twinkle, twinkle little star”, or “Open shut them”. When you recite the words with an animated voice and face and then tie in hand and finger movements, your baby will learn to link spoken words with signals.
Build on these and be sensitive to your baby’s attempts to let you know what they want. Daily practice and repetition of familiar signs and their meanings will help you both develop skills.
Getting kids out in the garden and involving them in gardening is a wonderful way of connecting them with nature. If you help your children to learn how soil and earth are associated with growth, you will be giving them a lifelong gift. Even if you don’t have a green thumb yourself, your children won’t be critical of your gardening attempts. What they will see is you having fun and spending time with them. The result, if there is one, will be an added bonus.
Buy some plant seedlings which will grow quickly and don’t rely on too much tender loving care to thrive. A vegetable garden is a great way of demonstrating the message that time and effort invested into something brings its own rewards. Lettuce, rocket, capsicum, beans, peas or corn seedlings all grow reasonably quickly with the added bonus that the results are edible. If flowers are more your style, consider sunflowers, alyssum (dolly’s flowers), impatiens and daisies which are all fairly indestructible. Placing cut off stems in a clear vase of water and then seeing if they shoot is fun. Bean sprouts nestled into water soaked cotton wool balls soon produce the most fascinating results. If your kids can wait to eat them!
The key with gardening is to be imaginative and not be too precious about the inevitable dirt and mud. Of course a trowel or two and a watering can are essential. Look for worms, grasshoppers, bugs and beetles. Even if you are phobic about this yourself, try not to pass on your fear to your children. Hair and eye colour are not the only inherited traits – phobias can appear throughout generations too.
Domestic pets really do add their own unique benefits to family life. They help kids to learn about responsibility and caring for something other than themselves. But don’t be under any illusion that feeding and cleaning up after the pets will be shared fairly amongst the household members. Kids are very adept at avoidance when it comes to their turn, and these tasks generally get added to the parent’s long list of things to do.
Accepting a pet into the household is often a long term responsibility. So consider very carefully if you are willing and able to invest the time, money and effort into caring for them properly. As long as the pets are wormed and fleaed regularly, there is usually little risk of transmission of parasites to humans. Hand washing after handling the pets and avoiding their droppings is important.
Once, all that was involved in a kid’s party was blowing up some balloons, sprinkling a few hundreds and thousands on white bread and pinning a tail on a donkey. Now, a full scale production seems to have become the norm. Parents who don’t subscribe to the “event management” style of children’s party can feel somehow negligent if they don’t. But kids thrive on simplicity, colour and a bit of sugar.
Get them involved in their party organisation and avoid seeing it as a competition with other parents. How much you spend and the entertainment you book will not guarantee everyone a good time. But your enthusiasm and maintaining a reasonably calm attitude about the whole deal will. Avoid going overboard with organising too many party games. A bunch of kids together can usually make their own fun and it is often distracting and less fun for them if they are made to stop what they are doing to start another, adult led activity.
Cries of “Are we there yet?” have plagued every parent since time began. But with a bit of planning and some regular breaks, travelling with kids can actually be enjoyable. Involve them in the planning as much as you can and aim to match distraction activities with their age. Remember the attention time-span for most toddlers is a nanosecond, so keep a rotating stash of books, toys and interactive games on hand. Travel friendly food which doesn’t require a bath afterwards, (think a mango) is essential. Crackers, dried fruit, sandwiches, cut up vegetable sticks are ideal. Take plenty of water, from bottles and cups the kids can access themselves. Even if it hurts your sensibilities, consider buying or borrowing a portable DVD player. This little device has saved many a parent’s sanity on a long car trip.
Go on a train ride, hop on a bus, jump on a ferry or hail a tram. All of these things are such fun to do on a lazy day. They don’t cost much and will keep the kids entertained for hours. Just remember to pack a bag with the essentials like food, drinks, changes of clothes and sun protection. Often, a little lie down once home again is in order. Not just for the children either!
Help your children to read and you will be giving them a gift for life. Children who grow up in households where books, magazines, newspapers and a range of printed material are around will learn that literacy is a fact of life. Give books for birthdays and special occasions and take them to the library and book shops. Let them see you reading and make it a practice to read to them every day. Children need to “read” at least a thousand books before they even start school, so if you start when they are born, if not before, you’ll soon reach this number.
Babies begin an affinity with the water while they are still in the uterus. Bath time is a natural continuation of their exposure to water and most babies love to kick and splash around in it. The general consensus on the correct age to start teaching babies to swim is around 4 months. But it is never too late to enrol your child in swimming classes, given by an accredited, trained instructor. If you have a pool yourself or on a property where there is a risk of drowning, it is essential for your child’s safety that they are taught how to swim as early as possible.
Kids who have had lessons are at an advantage by the time they start school. Having the benefit of one on one time from an instructor will set them up to have a good understanding of the basics before they are in a class with a couple of dozen other kids.