Take long view on the big and small decisions of parenthood

It’s important to consider the bigger picture — the values and traits you hope to nurture in your children.

Every day, parents make a multitude of decisions. What to make for dinner, who will pick up Sarah after soccer, what clothes to put out for Billy, what book to read at bedtime, who will give the baby a bath — there are endless small decisions to make. These small choices make up daily life and, at times, they’re very compelling.

And then there are bigger decisions. Where should we live, suburbs or city; what school district is the best; do I work full-time or part-time; how do I respond to the day-to-day concerns of my child; what behaviors do I reward; what kind of behavior do I model; or what is the “right” way to parent my child.

We worry and second-guess ourselves. How will these big and small decisions impact my child? How will today’s choice turn out 10 years from now? In the moment, there is no way to know. There is hope (that my daughter will become an adult I would be proud to know) and fear (what if my son becomes a dysfunctional adult?).

In the moment, we look at every decision we make under a microscope. Under that lens, small things look very big. But when we look back at the past, we look through a telescope. With that lens, we only see what is truly large.

Looking back, I recall several big decisions that I believe had a broad impact on my children’s lives. I want to share them with you.

I decided to be 100% present when I spent time with my daughters. I realized that as a working parent my time with my children would be limited. I decided that when I was with them, I would be 100% in the moment with them and that I would try to savor and enjoy all the small and large moments of their childhood. Somehow I realized that their childhood would fly by, and I wanted to be fully present when I was with them. And by in large, I was. It was a conscious choice.

I decided to spend weekly individual time with each child. We were always doing activities as a family, but I wanted to establish an independent relationship with each child. What worked best for me was to bring each kid out for breakfast once a week before school. Then I would bring them to school. It was pretty regular. Sometimes our bagel and hot chocolate breakfast lasted 10 minutes, in silence. But other times, over egg sandwiches, we had long discussions. It was an opportunity for us to connect every week.

I was more interested in cultivating curiosity than good grades. I didn’t care what grades they got, and I didn’t make a big deal out of good grades. I was much more interested in what they learned, what they thought and in promoting critical thinking. I praised curiosity, reflection and questioning. I hoped that they would become good citizens.

I wanted them to appreciate diversity. When they were in high school and middle school, we moved from the suburbs to the city, from an excellent school district to a less than stellar one. Everyone thought we were nuts. But I wanted them to experience a multicultural environment with kids from many different social and economic backgrounds. I felt strongly that this would help them understand the world we live in more fully. I wanted them to appreciate the opportunities they were born into.

It’s important to consider the big picture values and traits you hope to nurture in your children when you make the big and small decisions of everyday family life. Take the long view.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/health-wellness-library.html.

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