Stress and parenting

There have been a lot of articles in popular media recently about how stressful parenting is. Contemporary parents seem to be constantly worried that they aren’t doing the right things and aren’t being there for their children at every point of the day. Yet those same parents, whose lives are filled with worry and stress seem to keep making more appointments for their children, adding more structure to the lives of their children and making less and less time just to be with their children. It seems to me that the last thing these parents want their children to do is to see them having a bit of downtime. Even though all humans need free time to allow our imaginations to roam, they seem reluctant to have any unstructured time in the lives of their children.

It makes sense that parents worry about their children’s futures and that they spend time and energy imagining that future, but parents often read too much into what is often for a child just play. Play can have value all by itself without having to be a predictor of the future. A kid can play with a science kit without necessarily being destined to become a neuroscientist. A kid can enjoy writing and not grow up to become a Pulitzer Prize winner. A child can donate clothes or toys to a charity without becoming Mother Theresa. Part of the stress that today’s parent’s feel comes, in part, from over projecting the future. Sometimes it is just fine for a child to be a child, and parents who can enjoy the present moment without projecting the future can have a less-stressful life.

I’ve heard several stories of parents writing to admissions offices of colleges asking for advice on preparing their children to get into a particular college. Choosing a college for your preschooler might be a bit presumptuous. And it ignores a simple fact. Being admitted to a prestigious college is far less important in a person’s life than learning to make the most of educational experiences. A good college education comes more from an individual’s ability to operate in a learning environment than from the choice of educational institution. I know plenty of successful adults who didn’t get into their first-choice college. Sometimes the ability to recover from disappointment is more important than any other skill.

Young parents are not asking me for advice, and it isn’t my place to tell them what to do, but there is a part of me that wants to say simply, “Lighten up. Enjoy your child.” There dopes
t have to be a big purpose or a deep meaning in every moment you spend with your child.

Last month the American Academy of Pediatrics released a report detailing the developmental importance of play and suggesting the doctors write “prescriptions” for it during early-childhood checkups. it strikes me as really strange that a doctor has to write a prescription for a parent to know that play is an important part of a child’s life. It makes me sad that parents don’t know the joy of just playing with children.

I know that I am getting on in years. Our youngest child turned 35 last week. We raised our children in a different time. But I also know the simple joy of spending a couple of hours designing a treasure hunt with my seven-year-old grandson. I get a lot of pleasure out of being able to read as many books with our four-year-old as she wants. I am perfectly entertained by watching our one-year-old take all of the clean clothes out of the clothes basket and crawl in herself, then crawl out and put the clothes back into the basket. Not every moment spent with a child has to have a specific goal or purpose. Sometimes it is fun to just watch a child explore the world.

As a seminary student, I taught stress management to business executives and traders on the Chicago Board of Trade. More recently I have taught stress management skills to law enforcement officers. I’ve studied the topic enough to know that chronic stress - the kind that become distress - builds when people stay in a hyper-aroused state for too long. Part of the way that people learn to decrease the stress in their lives is to plan for down time - to make time for unstructured activity. It isn’t just children who need play in their lives. We adults need it too, even though we may have trouble calling our activities play. That is one of the gifts of being a grandparent. I can just play with my grandchildren without needing to accomplish some greater purpose.

I know that the time will come, all too quickly, when the challenge of obtaining a college education will loom in the lives of our grandchildren. The expense will be a limiting factor for them as it was for their parents and for my generation. But I also know that we figured out how to help the previous generation get through that life hurdle. Right now, I don’t think that the choice of college should dominate the thinking of parents.

The children’s author Katherine Marsh writes about her ten-year-old son reporting that at school he watched a short film about how the kids of his parents generation “didn’t have video games and had to play board games.” He explained to her that kids should get off screens and play together. It is not bad advice. But how did it occur to the planners of the activity that the way to teach that lesson was to have kids watch a movie. Do they not see the irony of even making such a movie in the first place?

So, parents, relax. Allow your children to take the lead from time to time. They’ll let you know if they are hungry or if they have specific needs. Make some homemade play dough. Get out the finger paints and make a mess. Build a tower out of blocks. Enjoy just being with your children. If you pay attention, you’ll find that your children know more about making life less stressful than you.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!