It seems to take my 10-year-old much longer than it should to get out the door to go anywhere. It is the single most frustrating part of any day.
My son is chatty, which I love, but he often decides to have these great, in-depth conversations about his favorite video game at the same time I’m trying to remind him that he needs to find his glasses, his water bottle, a mask, his shoes. He gets frustrated at the constant interruptions and reminders, whereas I simply want him to focus on gathering what he needs first and then tell me everything he wants to say once the front door is shut behind us.
I sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that I’m failing miserably at this small corner of parenting—raising a self-sufficient child who can leave one place for another place in a timely manner, taking everything he needs with him. I’ve tried every tactic I can think of to teach him to pause, take a breath, look around, and gather his things, from visual checklists, to the natural consequences of forgetting things, to a ridiculous sing-songy mantra I once made up for him to say to himself as he leaves. Even still, I find myself interrupting story after story to keep him on track to get out the door, much to the frustration of both of us.
As parents, it’s easy to become hyper-focused on these conflicts, which seem to carry so much weight in the moment. As Jessica Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, wrote several years back for the New York Times:
Walking through the woods with a friend on a recent spring afternoon, I lamented the lack of progress my son has made on the organizational front. Like many tweens, his frontal lobe is barely half-baked, and his ability to master the demands of middle school lags behind his teachers’ expectations. Despite strategy sessions and elaborately-laid plans, his backpack and locker continue to function as, in his words, “a Tardis gone wrong” for all things essential and time-sensitive.
My friend listened, made some supportive, empathetic noises, and then reminded me of how far he has come over the span of years rather than days. Her lovely point flitted past, well over my head, as I trudged through the muck and mire of my self-pity.
Later on that day, when I was done feeling sorry for myself, I realized that, of course, she was right. He has made progress; maybe not as compared with yesterday, or the week before, but in the long view.
When we’re in the middle of a tantrum phase that never seems to end, when a little kid is overly aggressive with his peers, or when an older kid decides your rules just aren’t for them, it can be helpful to take a deep breath and focus on the long view. Here’s how to get better at doing so:
Analyze the bigger picture
When I think about my son’s struggle to focus on transitioning from one place to another, I first think about is how long this has been going on, how long we’ve been focused on it, and how it hasn’t seemed to be getting any better. He has got to become more responsible for this, I often think to myself. But if I zoom out from that tight shot, what you’d actually see is a kid who has gotten a lot more self-sufficient over the past year.
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He’s now making his own lunch and getting his own snacks. He’s putting his shoes away when he gets home. He’s washing his hands without constant reminders. He noticed my bed was unmade the other day and made it for me, for god’s sake. If I define his self-sufficiency by this one area he struggles with, I ignore all the other ways he has grown. A couple of years ago, the thought of him ever making his own lunch would have seemed impossible, yet here we are. If we can try to look at our kids’ behaviors within a greater context, we can feel a little more confident that eventually, they’ll get the basics down.
Take a step back
It’s natural for us to worry or overanalyze every last concerning behavior our kids display. Whether they’re struggling in school, skipping class, or constantly talking back, we might wonder where we went wrong. But every child has strengths and weaknesses, skills they need to further develop, a frontal lobe that is still a work in progress. We’re often too close to the situation to be fair in our interpretation of how big of a deal it is—or if it’s even a deal at all. When this happens, one thing that can be helpful is to imagine your child is not your child at all.
Whatever behavior or situation your child is currently struggling with, pretend they are actually your kid’s friend, or your best friend’s child, or the kid next door. Imagine their parent confiding in you, venting about how they keep missing curfew or got their third detention or never turn their homework in on time—what would you say to them? We can sometimes more easily see the “long view” from an emotional distance, so try simulating that distance for yourself.
Teach and lead by example
No matter how many times we tell our kids to do a certain thing or act a certain way, our actions are always going to speak louder than our words. They learn how to operate in the world largely by how we operate in the world. How you treat them, how you treat others, and how you treat yourself will go a long way toward informing their behavior as they age and finally, mercifully, enter young adulthood.
I forget things, too. A lot, actually. I’m the one who is generally in charge of packing for family vacations, and it’s a running joke that it’s not a matter of if I’ll forget something obvious and important, but what random thing it will be this time. I make checklists, I focus, I try to remember every last thing, and I still forget.
But when I do, and my son is with me, I try to not criticize myself for it. People get distracted and forget things. If I can go back and get it, I go back and get it. If I can’t, I try to talk through my other options. Because someday, my adult child will breeze out the front door with (mostly) everything in hand. And when he does forget something, I want him to hear my voice in his head, saying, “Ah well, no big deal. I’ll figure something out.”