My wife is the person I most admire in my life. She’s one of those people that makes everything she does look so damn easy. I have been humbled by her more times than anyone I’ve ever met. She earned her bachelors and masters degree in early childhood education from the University of Minnesota, which is where we met. She went on to work at the highly coveted University Childcare Center as an Area Coordinator and was one of their best employees. The problem was, her take-home pay was barely more than the cost to send our first daughter there.
It made little sense to us to have her dedicate all of her time teaching 20 other couples’ kids just so we could pay a different teacher to spend 1/7 her time and attention caring for ours (7/1 being the required teacher to student ratio). At a salary of around $36K, having her stay at home to dedicate her full attention to our child would effectively multiply her salary by 6 times to $252K! The decision was a no-brainer.
There is no bachelor's degree for parenting, yet it’s arguably the most important and difficult job there is if you wanna do it right. I mean honestly, how do you teach a small, undeveloped, emotionally chaotic human to be a functioning, autonomous human? How do you then teach that human to be better than you at being human? And how do you retain your humanity while doing it?
Seeing as how my wife was professionally trained to teach humans how to be humans, I though it might be worth passing on her principles and guidelines for raising children to those who are expecting or currently in the midst of the chaos of child rearing. They are as follows.
Teach, don’t punish.
Don’t punish your kids for misbehaving. Instead, try to find “natural consequences” for their actions. For example, if our daughter takes too long to get ready for bed, she will miss out on her story because she used up that time — not as an arbitrary punishment for taking too long. We try our best not to dish out arbitrary punishments that cannot be linked back to the original action in a plausible way. The idea to teach children to behave in a certain manner not because it’s a way to avoid punishment from others but because not doing so will result in negative consequences doled out by, well, reality.
Treat your children with respect.
Children are not your slaves to control; they are fully actualized people with their own hopes, thoughts, desires, and frustrations. This principle is the most important one in my opinion, because I’ve seen how different kids are whose parents live by it than those whose parents didn't. Kids raised in an environment of mutual respect end up being much more independent and confident.
It’s easy to forget how frustrating it often was being a kid. If I want to go take a ride on my motorcycle, for instance, I just go do it. There isn’t some much larger person waiting to grab me on my way to my bike and physically carry me back into the house, giving a reason of “because I said so” when I ask why. Imagine how frustrating that would be and be sensitive to it.
Let them do as much for themselves as they possibly can.
Arrange your house to put as many things on the level of your child as you can. This is called the Montessori Approach. Kids crave independence. Let them do as much for themselves as they possibly can. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t be helping clean up and prepare dinner with you, get their own clothes out, brush their teeth, sweep, etc. Let them participate as productive members of your family and it will pay big dividends later.
Our 5-year-old is almost too independent. She is very bold about doing stuff on her own so it’s common for us to discover her taking on some task that’s just out of her ability to do like create some complicated snack for herself or use multiple chairs/stools to reach high places. She defends that freedom with veracity, too, any time I offer to help her do something she believes she is capable of. As hard as it can be, especially when worrying about her safety, I stay my hand and let her make her best attempt. If she’s unable to do it, she will ask for help, but the vast majority of the time she ends up surprising me by pulling it off.
Let your children choose the direction their play takes.
My wife is very good about providing many different spaces for our daughter designed to allow her to explore the world and express herself by setting up light tables , clay and tools, painting easels, natural material children’s kitchens, etc. Allow your children to explore any topic they find interesting and alter the environment to accommodate for that new interest. For instance, if you read a book about ballet and your child is especially interested in it, setup a mini ballet dance studio with a mirror, a bar to hold onto, music player they can turn on themselves, go see a ballet, etc, and show them videos of ballet dancers and moves they might want to try. If they become more interested in something else along the way — say, mirrors and how they reflect light — then let them follow that path. The point is to let children explore the world naturally and follow their interests to see where they lead.
Be unified with your spouse.
Make sure you are on the same page with your spouse about how to raise your kids. If you have any disagreements about how to handle a situation with your child, especially in the heat of the moment, discuss them afterward and not in earshot of the child. It’s important that both parents remain unified and consistent so you’re not sending mixed signals. Kids are far more clever and perceptive than you might imagine and they will exploit any perceived kinks in your parenting, playing you against your spouse.
Let your children see conflict resolution.
If you fight with your spouse in front of your kid, resolve the fight in front of your kid. It’s fine for them to see that fights do happen (so don’t feel like you have to bite your tongue all the time), but it’s important they see how fights are resolved as well. On a related note, I feel it’s important to be affectionate in front of your kids, too. They learn about what love is from you.
Go “all in” on toilet training.
Switch them to underwear exclusively and take them to the bathroom to do a “toilet try” every two hours. Diapers make doing that relatively comfortable, while plain underwear make it quite uncomfortable, so that will motivate them to learn how to use the toilet. They will have a few “accidents” but it’s important to not call them that. They aren’t “accidents” and shaming children can delay their progress. Remember, they’ve been shitting and pissing themselves for their entire lives up to that point, so to them it’s completely natural. Just calmly take them to the bathroom for another try and change their underwear. Also, avoid celebrating successful toilet tries. This is something they are supposed to be doing, not some great achievement. Praising them for success on the toilet only makes unsuccessful attempts more stressful for them.
Ferber your child.
We used the Ferber Method on both our kids and I’m a believer. Our oldest daughter started sleeping through the night at 8 weeks after only two nights of being “Ferbered." My younger daughter was a bit more resistant but it didn’t take more than a few weeks before she was sleeping through the night. The hardest part is listening to your child cry for more than 10 minutes. I had to help my wife a few times to keep her from breaking down and checking on our daughters, even though she has been the one who is most adamant about a regular and consistent bedtime schedule. It has paid off in spades, though — our children go to bed at around 7 p.m. and wake up at about 6 a.m. every single day without incident.
Always tell them why.
Try not to answer your child’s question by saying “because” or “because I said so”. I try to answer all my daughter’s questions as I would any other adult. I treat her as though she’s a visitor from another world who is perfectly capable of understanding the concepts she’s asking about, but just lacks a lot of the base knowledge about our world to put them together as easy as we adults can (this all relates back to respecting your child). I try not to dumb down my responses if I can help it.
We recently went over the story of where humans came from and how we got to where we are today. Often she will come back with unbelievably insightful questions or comments about the topic I described, and it’s easily the most rewarding part of being a parent for me. Kids truly are more capable of understanding the world than you could possibly imagine. An added bonus to this approach is that you become very good at coming up with analogies.
Consistency is one of the most important things you can provide for your child. Our oldest daughter has gone to bed at 7pm and woke up at 7:30am for her entire life. She has nap at the same time, meals at the same times, and has a good routine for snacks, playtime, bath time, etc. Kids crave consistency and routine, even if they protest it. Give them a pattern to follow and they will settle right into it and you will thank yourself later.
Your mileage may vary, of course, but these strategies have suited us very well. We have a third baby on the way and will likely have to employ even more tactics to manage the chaos of being outnumbered by three precocious girls, and I will report back with everything else we’ve learned at some later point in time.
Assuming we survive...!
This post originally appeared on Medium.com and was written by Mark Nutter, a freelance software developer and father of two living in Minneapolis, MN. He writes about tech, life, and philosophy over at Medium.