When it comes to parenting, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all. (Being a foster parent to 25 different children over the past 7 years has taught me that much.) There isn’t enough good training on parenting, and there aren’t any degrees that one can get to make you a great parent. However, there are principles that, when understood and integrated into different parenting styles, can significantly help regardless of what twists and turns life takes.
I would like to share just three of them in this blog.
1. The Principle of Observation
For the past 12 years I have worked at a very large church. Currently I oversee 16 staff, who minister to 1500 children each weekend. To say that our programs can feel a bit chaotic is an understatement. Strangely, 10 years ago when there were far fewer children and I had far fewer responsibilities, things still felt just as chaotic in our programs.
It was in this setting that Pastor Chris Puhach, who was my boss at the time, taught me the leadership principle of observation. This may seems obvious (most good principles are), but the principle of observation written out would look something like this, “A good leader knows how to mentally step out of the chaos for a moment, take stock of what is going one, make several mental notes, and then re-engage with the kids.” This became a regular practice for me in leadership, but not in parenting.
Parenting requires us to frequently step out of what is going on and observe. Not for the purpose of racing back in and setting the chaos in order, but for the purpose of leading our families. Parents are supposed to lead and that takes careful observation in even the craziest times. (Perhaps more-so in the crazy times.)
There is another aspect to observation, which is the observing of other parents. This may sound a bit creepy, but we need to get good at watching good parents. For example, if you know of a family that runs in an orderly way, and your household lacks that order, you would be wise to see what you can learn from that orderly family! If you know of a family that has turned out 4 great teenagers, and you have littles in your home still, wisdom says, you step out of your chaos and see what you can observe and learn from those farther ahead.
2. The Principle of Sacrifice
There are few things in life that expose selfishness in adults like having kids. I’m convinced 75% of the challenges parents face would be overcome if they could truly internalize these four little words: It’s not about you.
Look, I just don’t care how you became a parent. Whether it was planned meticulously, or the pregnancy was unplanned. Whether the children arrived through natural means, or through the foster care system. When you became a parent, you forfeited your rights to everything you hold dear.
That couch you love? It’s about to get barfed on.
That car you love? It’s about to get traded in for a mini-van.
That restaurant you like to frequent? So long old friend! You no longer have time, money, let alone energy to go back.
And for all those parents who say it’s going to get better, please let me qualify that. The only way life gets better as time goes on is if you will realize that the sacrifice is better than the selfishness. If you can’t get past your own selfishness and learn to revel in the purity of self-less-ness, you will be miserable.
So the next time you are frustrated that your kids are ruining your fun, remember the principle of sacrifice in parenting. It is literally the key to satisfaction in life.
3. The Principle of Balance
Finally, is the principle of balance and this one is tricky. It’s tricky because rarely does balance look like balance, usually because we don’t take a long enough view of health.
When I think about how most people try to become physically healthy, for example, I see little balance. The gym-nuts don’t seem very balanced to me, but neither do the people who don’t get off their duffs. How many books have been written (and awful YouTube videos produced) that just put you on a trajectory of yo-yo dieting? 10 pounds on… 10 pounds off… repeat. Balance in this case is recognizing that exercise is important, but that it can be realistic. Balance is recognizing that you can ditch sugar during the week and enjoy some cheese cake on the weekend.
Now consider parenting. Rules are important for a household to function, but are they balanced? A balanced set of rules considers what season of life your kids are in. When our oldest son started grade 2 he was pretty far behind in his reading and it bothered us. So we devised a plan. We told him that if he wanted to play video games he would have to earn that time minute for minute. Every minute he read earned him a minute of video games.
Some parents might say that this was too easy. If you have a kid who loves video games, but won’t read, just take away the video games. Another parent will look at our plan and say, “Minute for minute? Isn’t that a little unrealistic? Let the kid have some down-time!” (Honestly, I vacillated between the two for a while.)
But what was the result? He ended the year several grade levels ahead of his classmates.
I don’t feel particularly balanced in life. It’s hard to know how to keep a good balance of work and family. Play and rest. Friends and solitude. And yes, reading and video games. But the key is that a parent pays attention to balances and imbalances and tries to bring some order to their kids lives.
In other words, it’s really important for a parent to practice observation.
Thom Van Dycke has worked with children and youth since 2001 and is a passionate advocate for healthy foster care. Together with his wife, since 2011, they have welcomed 30 foster children into their home. In 2017, Thom Van Dycke was trained as a Trust-Based Relational Intervention Practitioner.