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Sunday 25th August 2019

Letter to a new parent

20th February 2013

A sustained baby boom among my colleagues prompted me to muse aloud recently that perhaps the best gift of all might be a collection of child-rearing wisdom from battle-hardened veterans. This met with some interest among the new parents in mind, so I did what any relatively switched-on parent of adolescents does in 2013: I crowd-sourced, polling friends and sending out a community-wide query soliciting pearls of wisdom.

Many of the replies were priceless - prompting me to devise my own list of hard-earned tips as well as a reading list that may save a whole lot of time and trouble. We Americans are an anxious lot, after all: We lead the world in publishing books on child-rearing, ever hopeful that we’ll find just the right wisdom to help our offspring thrive in this increasingly Darwinian world.

So, new parents, as you pace the floors  at 3 am, with a howling infant or two in your arms and an obstacle course of laundry in your path, my friends and I proffer the following, along with our warmest wishes for your precious new contestant in the human race - mazel tov:

Cast a wide net

Having children gives you something in common with most of humankind - enjoy it. Open your home to other parents and children, and share some of the labor with friends you trust. Carpooling saves petrol and a lot of trouble, but it also sends children a powerfully reassuring signal that their home team is deeper and wider than just Mum and Dad. When I contracted a grave case of mono years ago, my then-tiny daughters worried about me, but they also panicked over who would take care of them if I grew sicker. Reminding them we had plenty of friends and family helped enormously. And in times of crisis, nothing else comes close.

Humour can be your best weapon

While I’ve found most children are terrified of clowns, you can often defuse a tantrum with humour. The toddler who refuses to get dressed sometimes laughs hard enough watching Mum trying to squeeze into a 3-year-old size jumper she forgets why she was being obstreperous in the first place. Likewise, I’ve never found a better way to get my children to stop fighting in public than by singing Sandra Boyton’s classic "Snuggle Puppy" at the top of my lungs. It works every time.

You are the family spin doctor

Children take cues about everything from the adults in their lives. If you worry, they worry. If you project joy and optimism, they’ll pick up on that too. When everyone oversleeps and you have to short-circuit the usual morning routine to get to school on time, you can either lose your cool or congratulate everyone on your new land-speed record. I was once driving four or five small girls home from a party when they all lost their helium balloons in a giant gust of wind. I knew I had maybe three seconds to forestall mass weeping. "Quick - that’s good luck! Everyone make a wish!" I shouted. They all screwed their eyes up tight and wished hard enough to forget about the balloons. This also works for ice cream that falls off the cone, by the way. (Spin-doctoring occasionally requires props. Facing the prospect of flying cross-country with a baby and a toddler who had just decided she wasn’t going because she didn’t like the roar of jet engines, I went into a panic and proposed that she fly in her Little Mermaid Halloween costume because the Mermaid would think it was the roar of the sea. It worked. The image of my sweet three-year-old mincing down the jetway as Disney’s Ariel was priceless. And the flight was fine).

Trust your instincts

Other people have expertise in children. You are the expert on your child. If you think something just isn’t right, it may not be. Both my own children developed autoimmune thyroid disorders at about age eight that were initially overlooked and took some time to diagnose. Second-graders shouldn’t be falling asleep over their homework, so we pressed for answers. Endocrine disorders are increasingly common among children, by the way, and can be mistaken for many other things. Likewise, if you’re at all uneasy with your childcare arrangements, take note. The babysitter may have worked diligently for several years but can’t stay cool with a sassy four-year-old. Time for a talk and maybe a change. A neighbour may seem a little predatory. Stay away. Your first duty is to protect your child, not to avoid offending other adults.

Remain vigilant. Or as President Reagan used to say, Trust but verify

Parents who wouldn’t have dreamed of just dropping off a young child at another home without meeting a parent or caregiver and checking that an adult will be home often do precisely that with older kids. Meet the friends. Meet the parents. Have children check in regularly when they’re unsupervised. This not only tells children you care deeply about them and their safety, it signals to peers and potential predators that this isn’t a child who can just drop off the grid for a few hours.

Seize the moment when it comes to food

Worried that your child isn’t eating enough healthful foods? Wait until he’s completely starving - then bring out the produce. A kid who’s really hungry will probably eat those carrots and apples without batting an eye.

Pick your battles

We all make compromises eventually. I know a girl who insisted on wearing a swimsuit with cowboy boots through most of kindergarten after her very wise mother decided that she was otherwise so cooperative and mature it wasn’t worth digging in for World War III over what she wore to school for a half-day. She turned out fine and eventually expanded her sartorial repertoire to include pants, skirts, and dresses. Other parents I know allow an extra ear-piercing because they have really good kids who wouldn't touch drugs no matter what and eschew tattoos. Just know your own bottom line.

Remember Occam’s Razor? Sometimes the simplest explanations are spot-on

Sometimes the simplest explanations are spot-on. I once took my older daughter to the pediatrician after days of stomach pain when she was about five. As soon as the doctor loosened her jeans to check her abdomen, she said, "Oh, that feels SO much better!" She had had a growth spurt and the stomach pains came from her too-tight clothing. Ditto for foot pain. Nagging coughs are a big red flag for acid reflux, which can be triggered by snacks before bed. Cutting those out can pretty much solve that problem.

Teach them kindness

No good ever comes of gossip, yet even the smartest adults often indulge in it. The child who doesn’t gossip, on the playground or online, has closer friends and keeps them. You can’t repeat this too often. Likewise, remind children that people often need love and compassion most when they seem to deserve it least.

It’s OK to let them entertain themselves in a safe environment

Talking to and interacting warmly with babies is critical, but a little downtime is good too. It’s the child with a few empty minutes who reaches for a book and starts turning pages. The measure of a person after all isn’t so much what she does in a frenzied day as what she does when her schedule is empty—will you turn a few free hours into a cardboard village or spend it posting photos of yourself on Instagram? I once watched a daughter build an orchestra out of tinfoil for her sister on a snow day without electricity. Her sister used to use her free hour at school to start a novel (unfinished as yet). In the unlikely event that they someday win a Tony or a Nobel, I will be just as proud of them because they took an empty bit of time and turned it into something beautiful.

They all learn to read eventually

I’ve known kids who read “Harry Potter” at six and others who got there far later. Watch out for trouble, but read to them lots and then relax. One of my daughters listened to audiobooks for hours every day but really wasn’t interested in hard copies until about age 10. She now writes better than most adults I know. One trick worth knowing: When kids do watch videos, switch on the closed-captioning. I am convinced this helps them associate letters with words and sounds at an early age. (Once they master the remote, though, they’ll switch the captions off). 

Show them how to bounce back

Anecdotal and scientific evidence indicates that one of the most important things we can model for our children is resilience in the face of a setback, frustration, or loss. The only life events that are truly inevitable are tragic, and we can never be fully prepared for them. But we can model some good ways to cope and recover.

If you read only one thing everyday, follow the health news

New studies on health and well-being, including brain development, are emerging all the time - we now know more about how the brain works and learns, and how adverse childhood experiences affect us for a lifetime, than ever before. Much of it ends up in the health section of your favourite newspaper. It’s more than worth the time you spend reading it.

Teach and practice basic personal safety and privacy early so you won’t have to worry quite so much later on

Who else is going to teach them never to fumble for keys in the dark, to keep doors locked, never leave drinks unattended, never post a photo of a brand new driver’s license with its goldmine of personal data online? Also: Devise a code they can use to signal that a playdate, party, or date has become unpleasant or unsafe. My daughters phone when things occasionally go pear-shaped and let me know with a code word that it's time for me to pick them up. And no, I'm not telling.

Teach them how to answer the phone politely and practice challenging conversations ahead of time

Finding the right words to ask a teacher about a grade or tell a friend you need some space is hard enough for adults. It’s even harder for them. Practice together. 

Change is constant

A dear friend just reminded me that the best advice she ever received was this: Whenever you think things will never change - that the colic will last forever, that he’ll never sleep in his own bed all night - they do. Celebrate for a day and then face the next challenge.

Keep it global

We need to remind our children any way we can that running water and electric light remain privileges still denied to many people, and girls remain third-class citizens at best in much of the world. You needn't travel the world to expose children to new languages and cultures. Einstein was a refugee. The man or woman who defeats cancer might be born tomorrow in a Rio slum. It's never too early to start talking to children about the bigger world, as it gets smaller every day.

With older children, who can sometimes be less than charming, attach baby pictures to their contact information on your mobile phone

When my daughters phone me, I see my favourite photos from 12 years ago on screen. It gives me more patience, reminds me how recently they were babies, and drives home how much love and protection they still need - even when they’re acting, well, like teenagers. Amazingly, I love them more now than ever. And when things go pear-shaped, I close my eyes and remind myself to make a wish.

Finally, here’s a list of books we’ve loved:

Your Baby & Child 
How Children Succeed: Grit, curiosity and the hidden power of character
Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success 
Our Last Best Shot: guiding our children through early adolescence
Getting to Calm: cool-headed strategies for parenting Tweens
The Gatekeepers: inside the admissions process of a premier college
Outliers: the story of success
Nurture Shock: new thinking  about children
Philadelphia Chickens (book and audio CD)
The Whole Brain Child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child's developing mind
Protecting the Gift: keeping children and teenagers safe (and parents sane)

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