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What I Wish I Knew Then: Three lessons to ring in the new year

Updated: Jan 10, 2020

At this time of year my wife and I really enjoy slowing down and spending time together as a family.  With holiday traditions built around celebrating the joy of the season and removing work pressures from our schedule, it’s a nice way to end a very full year. 

I say full because since we’ve had kids (twin 6 years old’s and a 4 year old) time has seemed to pass exponentially quicker.  There never seems to be enough time, and too many items on our list of “to do’s”. So slowing down, reconnecting, and reflecting on the year that past is something we make a priority. 

Last week we looked at pictures from when the kids were younger, watched videos of forgotten moments, and generally reminisced on the captured memories. As we talked through the past, we both said “If we only knew then what we know now!”

Not that we’ve had an epiphany or dramatic awakening, and we certainly know there is still so much to learn about parenting, life, our careers, etc….but through the sweet moments, and definitely as a result of challenging times, we recognized significant changes in our parenting approach over the past few years.

Our lament of wishing we knew more back then was a combination of personal growth, pain, regret, satisfaction, joy and fear all wrapped together.  I assume most parents experience this throughout the parenting journey, so you probably know what I’m talking about. 

I share this story because reflecting helped me recognize three simple lessons that I wish I knew back then. These lessons capture the growth I have experienced in the process of becoming a better dad. They have also helped me navigate the challenges of our children’s early development.

Over the next three weeks I will share a lesson learned and the value I’ve seen from applying it. At a time when so many are creating resolutions and goals for the year ahead, I encourage you to commit the same energy to your impact as a dad.

If you could use encouragement for the year ahead, then I hope you find them valuable.

Lesson #1 – Connect Before Correcting

At one time I found myself constantly saying “no”, “don’t do that”, “stop doing that”, “put that down”, “leave him/her alone”, and other corrective phrases.  It happened so often I began to wonder what my kids were doing right?! This time felt so heavy, so…. corrective, that I lost a lot of the joy I once experienced with my children. 

Some parenting experts call this approach ‘directing and correcting’.  And while it’s important to provide the necessary direction and correction as children grow, its not effective when used for almost all your parenting interactions. Most adults don’t want to be directed and corrected, so how would a tiny human respond to that as the only communication they received?

Thankfully, my wife recognized this negative pattern and helped me become more aware of how often I directed and corrected.  We then supported each other in shifting our styles to focus on connecting.  We began to point out the positive behaviour we saw, build specific one on one time for each child, affirmed the great attributes we noticed, looked for opportunities where they could contribute and take responsibility, helped them communicate their wants and needs, anticipated challenging situations and intervened before situations escalated.

We also worked on recognizing our own emotions and how they contributed to situations, or our own reactions to their behaviour.  How aware are you of your emotions?  I learned that I was surprisingly unaware of the underlying emotions that caused some of my reactions.  The good thing – the more I learned I didn’t know, the more time I spent discovering the emotion underlying the reaction.  The more I engaged in this process and communicated with my wife, the better we could support each other, work together, and trade off when tensions rose. This process of learning to understand and manage ourselves better contributed to quicker, more peaceful resolutions to previously challenging situations.

Another critical aspect to self management and learning to connect was listening and acknowledging my children’s feelings and perspective. If anyone has dealt with a toddler, you know this can be extremely challenging.  Completely irrational and ruled by emotion, the toddler brain can’t be reasoned with.  But it can be understood, empathized with, and made to feel safe, cared for and validated.  That is exactly what the process of listening and acknowledging did for me.  It helped me teach this tiny developing child that while I may not be able to give them what they wanted at the moment, I did understand what they wanted, empathized that it might be hard to not have it right then, that I cared about them, was on their side and would help them through their feelings. When this happened, we all experienced greater calm and clarity in working through the feelings that contributed to the current reality. 

I also learned to diagnose my kid’s emotions. Analyzing the situation and empathizing with their experience (even though it was very hard for me at times – especially when I thought they were being completely ridiculous) was another valuable shift in my approach.  Instead of correcting, I began to help them put words to their own emotions; “You’re really disappointed your brother didn’t share with you, aren’t you? That didn’t feel good, did it? You’re really mad that he doesn’t share his toys. I get that.  I’d be mad too.”

This whole process of active listening and empathizing did not come naturally for me.  But I found the guidance, resources and articles I began reading on parenting very helpful to implementing new strategies.

The ability to recognize my own emotions, listen and acknowledge my children’s feelings and respond vs react has been one of my greatest growth areas. It has significantly improved our connection, created many more positive interactions, and strengthened my bond with each of them.

From a stronger relationship, I began to see immediate differences.  Their listening improved. Their attitudes improved.  Defiance and talking back could be mitigated or dealt with in a constructive and calmer manner. By choosing to connect before trying to correct, I actually found much less need to correct.  The dynamic of my relationships and the joy I felt with my kids came back.  It didn’t feel so heavy or burdensome.  I had fun with them again, while helping them learn, grow and develop. 

While I am still working on this process every day, it has been invaluable to my experience as a dad. The ability to create connection before correction was a critical lesson I wish I learned sooner!

Dads, how do you connect with your children? We love hearing stories about how you get involved, plus we learn from each other in the process – so please share in the comments. 

Check back next week for lesson #2....

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