Recently I read the book The Secret of Happy Children by Steve Biddulph, which is an oldie but goodie in the world of parenting books. The title appealed to me because like every mother, I want my kids to be happy. I also like the fact that it’s not a long book, and Biddulph writes with ease and humor.
He also gained my trust by writing at the beginning of the book, “I still believe experts are a hazard to your family! If you listen to your own heart it will always tell you what the best way is to raise your children.”
I liked that because up until this last year, I have been loath to read many parenting books. I know I’m not an expert, but whenever I start reading about parenting, I get anxious because there’s always something in those words of wisdom that I’m not doing. I let my kids watch more T.V. than the experts say they should, I lose my patience, and I don’t always remain calm.
Yes, I know it’s normal, but when you start to read parenting advice, the logical part of you that says, “Nobody is perfect, and kids don’t need perfect” gets blurred because you want to be a good parent.
But it’s better to be informed. How can we get better if we never educate ourselves? So I read the book, and I’m glad I did. I know I won’t be perfect, but it gave me some things to think about.
In his first chapter, Biddulph talks about the negative programming parents give their children when they are unaware of it. Most of us adults come equipped with the programming our parents gave us. Did they tell you that you would never amount to anything? Compare you to someone else? Tell you that you were lazy or selfish?
“Children,” Biddulph writes, “with their brilliant, perceptive ways, will usually live up to our expectations!”
He writes that while any of us would recognize the extreme negative statements, most of the programming is subtler. “Observe children playing in a vacant lot, climbing trees,” he writes, “‘You’ll fall!’ ‘Watch out!’ ‘You’ll slip!’ cries the voice of their anxious mother….”
“Don’t be a pest” is one example he also gives, and I have to admit, I have used that myself. If used continually, this kind of talk will create “seeds that will grow and shape the child’s self-image, eventually becoming part of his personality.”
I think it’s hard to be conscious of everything we say to our children. When I’m tired and burned out by being a mother, who knows what kind of messages I’m sending just with my attitude? But since I read his book, I’ve been making strides at keeping myself more well rested and with a grateful attitude. I know I’m a more uplifting mom when I can do that.
The rest of the book offers alternatives to this kind of parenting, including chapters on “active listening” and the “assertive parent” (vs. the aggressive or passive parent). It covers what to do with tantrums, whining, and reminds us to foster a healthy relationship with our partners and also to take care of our own needs.
What stuck with me the most was his chapter on “What Children Really Want.” Though it should be common sense, every parent can use the reminder that when kids act up, it means that they have unmet needs. And usually what they want the most is our love and attention. Not half-the-attention-on-them and half-the-attention-on-our-smart-phones, but our full attention.
I read somewhere else recently that toddlers need at least one hour of sit-our-butts-on-the-floor and play with them per day. This may not seem like a long time, but if you are a parent, you know one hour is a very long time to sit and give our full attention to playful activities that are thrilling to children yet mind-numbing to adults.
Biddulph says parents should give their children (of all ages) at least half an hour a day of full attention. Let the rest of the world go, and listen, play, be with your child. That’s not much time in the big scheme of things.
I am a stay-at-home mom with the luxury of time with my children, but even I can use that advice. Adults have stress and work that takes our minds away from our kids even when we’re with them. So I appreciate the parenting advice Biddulph gives, and I highly recommend this book to any parent looking for more insights on how to raise happy kids.
Note: This column originally appeared in the October 7, 2011 edition of the Barrow Journal.