Let’s be honest: Parenting in the 21st century — the age of the curated childhood — is daunting. Parents constantly feel like they should be doing more.
I grew up in South Dakota and Nebraska, the second of four kids, where my parents — a Lutheran pastor and a music teacher — were too busy working and keeping us fed and clothed to hover. We had PBS, a house full of books and music, a big garden, church on Sundays and room to roam. They instilled simple values I’ll always be grateful for and I strive to emulate as a parent. My husband and I moved to Portland, Ore., last year from San Francisco, where parenting felt like an elite competitive sport. I adore the Bay Area, but as a new mother, I wanted to escape the suffocating pressure to produce a privileged champion specimen.
I’m a recovering Type-A perfectionist. As a kid, I was always the best at everything I did. I was anxious about having children because I knew I was at risk of pressuring myself to have perfect little high-achievers. I didn’t want to raise the kind of child who felt like he had to be the best at everything, or start prepping him for college in third grade.
One of my greatest accomplishments as an adult has been chilling the heck out and letting myself be okay with being average. I see no need for personal chauffeurs, overpriced tutors or hardcore chess tournaments. As a child of the heartland, it’s important to me that my son realize that not everybody’s family flies a private plane or uses “summers” as a verb.
After my son was born three years ago, I looked back at my own sweet prairie childhood and identified several key themes I wanted to replicate. If I devote a few minutes a day to each of these five activities, over time their collective influence will nurture a childhood that embodies the most grounded, meaningful things in life.
Here are the 5 things I do with my child every day in the hopes of being an okay parent:
Read. We do this at the library, on park benches, in bed before naps, at restaurants waiting for our food and in the back seat of the car while my husband runs into the grocery store to grab a last-minute ingredient. Reading is a part of our life, and it always will be. Seeing the joy my son gets from our trips to the library fills my heart. Sure, it’s often exhausting, and at the end of a long day, it would be easier to turn on the TV. But I know this investment of time and energy in these first few years will pay off when he looks forward to snuggling up with a book on his own.
Create family time. Kim John Payne’s book “Simplicity Parenting” emphasizes the importance of building family rituals into the week. Make pancakes together every Sunday morning. Set and clear the table together. Make a point to eat dinner together, at the table, often. FaceTime with cousins and grandparents who are far away. Mail thank-you notes to distant relatives. Do what you can with what you have. I know there may come a time when my son is a sullen teenager who doesn’t want to tell us about his day, or doesn’t light up when we walk in the room. Here and now, though, we are laying a foundation for a sense of connection that hopefully will weather any storms of the teenage years.
Make music. The arts are not a luxury. They’re essential to well-being. My mother surrounded us with music as kids: at church, at home, at school. Studies show that music makes kids smarter. My husband and I expose our son to music as much as possible, playing jazz in the car, or reggae as we’re making dinner or doing puzzles. I sing with my little guy frequently, take him to weekly parent-child music classes and talk about specific instruments, even if he doesn’t quite understand their characteristics yet.
Get out in nature. Make a point to get out of the house every day. There’s always a park, a hiking trail or a neighborhood stroll with opportunities to explore and discover, to value fresh air and quiet, and to take in all the marvels of the natural world. It can be as simple as walking two blocks up the street to say hello to the goats and chickens who live in the neighbor’s back yard and collecting leaves, berries and weeds on the way home. My husband and I grew up rambling through prairies and forests, and we want the same free-range experience for our son, despite contemporary tendencies to restrict independent play. Follow Lenore Skenazy for more on raising free-range kids.
Thank God. You can fill-in-the-divinity-blank here, using whatever word feels good to you: Spirit, Wisdom, Allah, Gaia, prana, OM. You get the point. We say a blessing before every meal. We take our son to a Unitarian church regularly to give him a dose of thoughtfulness, meditation and faith-informed social justice, even if he doesn’t understand much just yet. We want him to understand how his life fits into the greater universal picture and to search for meaning. Talking about God, and thanking God for our daily food and our warm home, feels like a great, simple way to start. We are also big fans of the simple board book “What Is God’s Name?” from Sandy Eisenberg Sasso, which offers a multicultural, peace-loving, interfaith way to talk about God.
It’s not always easy to make time for these things, even though they are priorities. Some days are a struggle and I don’t feel like I’m accomplishing much beyond keeping people alive. But if you think to yourself now and then “Books, family, music, nature, God,” your days will take on a sweet, simple structure of their own.
Rachel Meyer is a Portland, Ore.-based writer and yoga teacher. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, On Being, Yoga Journal, Tricycle, Yoga International, HuffPost and more. You can find her at www.rachelmeyeryoga.com or @rachelmeyeryoga.
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