Enjoying Your Children, At Every Stage of Life
Every stage of a child's life holds unique joys, challenges, and opportunities for growth - both for the child, and for the parent. Parenting is a rich, lifelong adventure of discovery and learning. Our children are among our most valuable assets, and our most powerful teachers. From the cradle to the grave, our children can try our patience, expand our hearts, and provide endless avenues of enrichment and growth - if we have the eyes to see it.
I remember a day when my own five children were very young, and we were walking through the mall at Christmas time. The holiday hustle and bustle surrounded us, as I pushed my baby's stroller through the crowded stores, and tried to make sure none of the children wandered too far off. At one point we were making our way through a bookstore. Out of the corner of my busy eye, I saw the cover of a book that would change my life and my perspective ever after.
I was so busy with the kids, I never even picked up that book. And I have never seen it since. But it forever altered my perspective, and expanded my joy - even on the most overwhelming of my days as a mother.
A Book That Changed My Life, and My Parenting
The book's title, in a large cheerful font, immediately stunned and inspired me. It was something like "How to Enjoy Your Children, At Every Stage of Life." Surrounding the title were colorful photos of parents with children of various ages and stages. A mother cradling her newborn. A dad playing catch with his preschooler. A mom helping her 3rd grader with homework. A dad talking soulfully with his teenage daughter. And so on and so on, all the way up to the white haired daughter, laughing with her even more white haired mother.
I saw that title and those images for only a split second. Yet they were forever etched in my mind, from that point forward. Though my children were very young at the time - under 8 years old - that momentary glance at that title and book cover changed the way I saw my time with them.
Up to that point, I had experienced my children as day-in, day-out responsibilities - precious little people who looked to me for food, guidance, and care, day and night. It was my job to nourish them, protect them, teach them, and when necessary, correct and discipline them. But to enjoy them? That was a new concept. And it was a thrilling one - an idea that brought joy to them, as well as to me, throughout the many years we have shared, from that point on.
At this time of writing, my kids are now 19 - 28 years. old. So we've been through the sleepless nights of infancy, the tantrums of toddlerhood, the many lessons and developments of elementary, junior high, and high school years. 3 of my children have now married, the remaining 2 just left for college a few months ago. One of my married daughters is now a mother herself, introducing me to the joys and challenges of grandparenting. At each stage so far, I have experienced that joyous possibility that book beckoned me into - not just caring for, but enjoying my children, at every stage of life. And now, it's my turn to pass some of those happy insights on to you.
The Early Years: Pregnancy, Infancy, and Toddlerhood
The earliest years of parenting are perhaps the most physically demanding and time-consuming. It is an intense crash-course into the massive transition that parenting represents. None of us enter this stage knowing how to do it well. Even before a child is born into this world, he or she transforms the world and life experiences of the parents.
The new mom experiences twenty-four-seven impact of her impending parenthood. Her own body is plunged into day-and-night changes: in shape, in sleep, and in focus, as she experiences a level of fatigue, discomfort, and ultimately pain she has never physically experienced before. In a different way, the father experiences a transformation of his relationship with the mother, as she deals with these physical stresses. No longer is he the central focus of her thoughts. Suddenly, he like she is plunged into an unexpected cascade of impact from impending parenthood, including the expanded financial responsiblities of caring for a new little person.
After the child is born, life changes even more. Sleep becomes a distant memory for a time, in the midst of day-and-night feedings, diaperings, and care. Parental freedom is curtailed, as it becomes impossible to even leave the house without first packing the diaper bag, stroller, and other new necessities. Toddlerhood brings its own challenges, as young children learn to stand on their own feet, wander off, say no, set limits, explore the world, and develop their own unique personalities.
There are certainly challenges associated with each of these early stages. But there are profound joys as well. In pregnancy, experiencing those first flutters and kicks of life from within the womb. Hearing that unique heartbeat, and seeing that first sonogram glimpse of the coming child. Buying tiny clothes and tiny shoes. Setting up a nursery. Hearing that first crucial cry as a child enters the world. Feeling the soft warmth of that tiny new bundle filling your arms. Witnessing the first shy smile, the first babbled words, the first independent steps. Watching your child learn to stand alone, develop their own unique personality, and discover their own unique interests. Sharing in their wonderment and discovery, as they learn to make their way in the world. These and so many other joys are available to parents, in those earliest stages. It is a time to cherish, capture, and yes, enjoy. For though it is an intense transformative time, it is a short time - passing quickly into memory and photographs, as the next stages arrive.
Childhood and Elementary School Years
As toddlerhood passes, children move into a demanding new phase of learning and development, as they enter school, and begin the year-by-year challenges and learning associated with their education. Not only do they grow in their academic skills; they also grow in their social awareness, and in the development of their own unqiue interests, talents, and contributions. Often there is a lot of carpooling and homework help needed during this time.
There is much to enjoy within those childhood years, as children become less dependent, and more capable. They grow in their abilities, strengths, and social awareness. They become contributing members of their families, becoming able to help with household chores and simple necessary tasks. Many of them during this time will become older siblings, helping to welcome younger children into the world. There are parks to play in, tea parties to laugh through, homework to help with, and achievements to celebrate. This time is often what parents most enjoy, and look back upon with fondness
Adolescence and Launch
Then come the years that many parents dread. Adolescence brings necessary hormonal adjustments, the expansion of personal independence, and the emergence of the individual self. That unqiue self does not always resonate easily with the hopes and wishes of parents. Parent-child conflicts often emerge or intensify during this time of necessary self-definition.
I was one of those parents that dreaded those adolescent transitions, as I had experienced stormy conflict myself with a parent during my own teenage years. Imagine my surprise one day, when my oldest was about 10, when a neighbor (parent of several teens and young adults) expressed to me another life-changing idea. She said, "Wow, I loved it when my kids were little. But so far, my favorite stage is their adolescence." Shocked and surprised by her comment, I asked her why these years were her favorite. "Oh," she exclaimed, "because it's during this time that you get to see what they really blossom into!"
I will be forever grateful for that neighbor's shared insight. It made it possible for me to not just enjoy but truly delight in my children's teen years. As she expressed, I experienced the year-by-year growth of my children into their own independent personalities. We didn't always agree on everything. But that was the beauty of it. Year by year, my children became stronger, more intelligent, more talented, bolder, and more confident. And then the time came for them to leave, walking on their own feet, standing in their own strength, finding their own life partners. There is certainly pain in that transition, as the y launch out of the parental home into their own lives and relationships. But there is great joy too, in supporting their achievements, celebrating their graduations, and facilitating their independent launches out into the world.
The Adult Years
I am now personally in the post-launch stage with each of my 5 children. The house is a lot quieter now. I am less involved in their lives than I have been since they first entered my world. Every so often they come home for the holidays or Sunday dinner, or bring their kids over for me to watch, or invite me to come to their concert or special event. As they grow into adulthood, our parent-child relationship necessarily changes. They make their own choices, build their own families, care for their own living spaces, and live their own lives.
There is pain in letting go. But there is also joy in watching their successes, supporting their efforts, and building a sweet adult-to-adult relationship with each one, born of mutual respect and ongoing commitment. I am no longer the person that calls the shots, drives them around, or decides what they eat for dinner. But I am the person that cheers them on from the sidelines, as they fully enter the realm of their own lives, families, careers, and achievements. I am able to assist and support their efforts until they can fully fly on their own.
Of all the stages, this one is the longest, spanning many decades, not just a few years. It is the destination to which all the other stages point. It is a time of mutual respect, and of mutual support. Decade by decade, it can become richer with age, as families grow and capacities increase. It is an exciting season of growth and learning - on both sides.
At Every Stage - Enjoy the Journey!
In conclusion - Every stage of parenting has its own particular challenges and struggles. But each stage also contains its unique joys and opportunities. "Enjoying Your Children, At Every Stage of Life," basically means - Enjoy the journey! Each step is unique, each life experience builds upon the previous one. And joy - abundant joy! - can be found at every stage of the journey.
So wherever you are in your parenting journey, your job today is - Enjoy it! Celebrate the moment, and drink it in now, for it will be gone forever, just a few brief moments from now.
Here's a few practical suggestions, to get you started:
- Intentionally carve out the time: You are never going to "have the time" to build strong relationships with your children and others. If you try to get all your rnecessary tasks done first, and then have time to enjoy together, you will never find enough hours in the day. But if you intentionally carve out bonding time first, then your most important priority will be taken care of, powering you more efficiently through other necessary but less important tasks afterward.
- Remember - The goal of the task is to strengthen the relationship: Whether you're cooking, cleaning, shoveling snow, helping with homework, or completing a task for your employer, keep in mind why you're doing those things, and who you're doing them for. Use the task as an opportunity to strengthen relationships with your child - rather than simply an end in itself.
- Go with the flow, and enjoy the moment: While planned events can be bonding and fun, there are great hidden opportunities for enjoyment in the normal structure of every day. Most of these opportunities can't be planned, controlled, or anticipated in advance. So keep your eyes open, keep your heart open, and look in the moment for those special moments of opportunity to enjoy, bond with, and care for your children.
So from pregnancy to old age, savor the fleeting but priceless opportunities you have to enjoy your children, at every stage of life. Doing so will make your daily responsibilities happier, power you more effectively through the difficult times, and bring joy to you and to your children, throughout all the seasons of your lives.
-- Carrie M. Wrigley, LCSW
Counselor, Speaker, Performer, and Author of
Your Happiness Toolkit: 16 Strategies for Overcoming Depression, and Building a Joyful, Fulfilling Life
> For more complete Information on this topic, see the book, Tool #10:
"Service: Joyfully Share What You Have and Are With Others"