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Tips for Being a More Lighthearted Parent

Author: Gretchen Rubin

I’ve been working on being a more light-hearted parent: less nagging, more laughing. Here are some tips—many suggested by friends—that have helped.

1. At least once a day, make each child helpless with laughter.

2. Folk wisdom holds that unless you want to do something every day, never do it three times in a row. So when the Big Girl had the flu, I lay in bed with her until she fell asleep for two nights. But not three nights.

3. Sing in the morning. It’s hard both to sing and to maintain a grouchy mood, and it sets a happy tone for everyone—particularly in my case, because I’m tone deaf and my audience finds my singing a source of great hilarity.

4. Get enough sleep. It’s so tempting to stay up late, to enjoy the peace and quiet. But 6:30 a.m. comes fast.

5. I’m often crabby with my children when I’m actually annoyed with myself. I forgot to buy more diapers for the Little Girl, so I snap at the Big Girl. Because I’m not good at concealing crankiness, I try to avoid feeling cranky by getting organized the night before, making sure I’m not rushed, etc.

6. I’ve been researching the “hedonic treadmill”: people quickly adapt to new pleasures or luxuries, so it takes a new pleasure to give them a jolt of gratification. As a result, I’ve cut back on treats and impulse buys. The ice-cream sandwich or the Polly Pockets set won’t be an exciting treat if it isn’t rare.

7. Most messages to kids are negative: “stop,” “don’t,” “no.” So I try to cast my answers as “yes.” “Yes, we’ll go as soon as you’ve finished eating,” not “We’re not leaving until you’ve finished eating.” It’s not easy to remember to do this, but I’m trying.

8. One friend prods his children into cleaning their rooms by telling them, “I’m going to clean your room unless you want to.” They can’t stand the thought of him messing with their stuff, so they take over. The Big Girl doesn’t care if I clean up her room, so this threat doesn’t make her do any cleaning, but then at least she can’t protest at how I’ve done it.

9. Repetition works with kids, so use the school mantras: “Sit square in your chair;” “accidents will happen,” “you get what you get, and you don’t get upset” (i.e., when cupcakes or shakers or whatever are handed out, you don’t keep trying to switch).

10. Make up your own mantras. A friend told me he was yelling at his kids too much, so he distilled all rules of behavior into four key phrases: “keep your hands to yourself”; “answer the first time you’re asked”; “ask first”; and “stay with us” (his kids tended to bolt).

11. Say “no” only when it really matters. Wear a bright red shirt with bright orange shorts? Sure. Put water in the toy tea set? Okay. Sleep with your head at the foot of the bed? Fine. Samuel Johnson said, “All severity that does not tend to increase good, or prevent evil, is idle.”

12. When I find myself thinking, “Soon, no more stroller,” or “Soon, no more high chair,” I remind myself how fleeting this is. All too soon the age of Cheerios and the Tooth Fairy will be over. The days are long, but the years are short.

We all want a peaceful, cheerful, even joyous, atmosphere at home—but we can’t nag and yell our way to get there. It's taking me a lot of effort to alter my parental habits, but even minor changes have made a big difference. So think about ways, like those listed above, to cut back on the shouting and to add moments of laughing, singing, and saying “yes.”

Reprinted with the kind permission of The Happiness Project.