The other evening our youngest child, Bradford, called me to the piano after he had finished practicing his lesson. The first book of music I grabbed fell open to the graceful little minuet “From the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach.” As I began to play, Bradford sat beside me, watching the music.
A few bars into the minuet, I realized that Bradford might just be able to play the right-hand melody by himself. It took a bit of coaxing, but to his surprise, he found he could read the notes. Soon we were flying along, Bradford playing the right hand, I the left. At the end of the minuet he jumped up and threw his hands in the air like a runner breaking the tape. “I can do it!” he shouted. “I can do it! Again! Let’s play it again!” Both of us were laughing out loud; we must have played the opening of the minuet - his favorite part - 20 times. It was the first “real” music Bradford had ever attempted, and his face was a study in joy.
It was also a moment I will remember forever. I could tell that Bradford was taking pleasure not only in the little tune, which I have loved since my own childhood. It is his now; for a lifetime. Perhaps, if I am lucky, Bradford will also remember the evening he first played it with his mother.
Later that night, when the children were in bed, I reflected on the times that I do my best work - so to speak - as a mom: in the endless discussions of peer problems; in the companionable hours we spend reading side by side, or hunting through libraries and bookstores; when all of us cook together, producing much laughter, a horrible mess and a glorious meal; and in sharing music. Although these activities are all quite different, there are common threads among them. In each case, I was feeling relaxed, and so were the children. The activity was voluntary; we could move on to something else, but we chose to be together. I felt calm and competent as a parent. Both of us - or all of us, if more than one child or parent was involved - were enjoying ourselves. And, finally, I felt very connected to the child.
As I thought more about that wonderful half hour with Bradford at the piano, I realized that my best moments as a parent seem to come when I’m sharing a personal strength. This is no coincidence, psychologists say.
“The heart of all good child-rearing is knowing your strengths, and knowing and accepting your preferences and weaknesses,” says Shari Kuchenbecker, a Los Angeles research psychologist who also teaches at Pepperdine University. “That’s because, if you like and accept the kind of person you are, you are much more likely to also let your kid be who he or she is.”
Concentrating on your personal strengths as you go about being a parent also boosts your self-confidence. That’s because when you’re feeling competent, you feel good about yourself. It shows in such subtle ways as how you stand and the pace of your conversation. And it translates into a better chance that your shared endeavor will be a winner - whether it’s a duet at the piano or a batch of jam-thumbprint cookies.
Playing to your personal strengths as a parent also increases the odds of having happy times together. When both you and your kids feel at ease and at your best, you’re likely to approach an activity with gusto and joy. When you are sharing something you love, you also are more likely to be relaxed with your children. And that, too, is a big plus. We’re all a little more giving, and a little more forgiving, when we aren’t tense.
By contrast, you’re likely to be wound up and short-tempered if you tend to focus on your flaws as a parent. Unfortunately, that often happens out of the best of intentions.
“Ninety-eight percent of parents sincerely want to do the very best job they can. But wanting that so badly can cause them to have unrealistic expectations,” says psychologist Helen Cleminshaw, director of the Center for Family Studies at the University of Akron.
But if your standards are too high, you’ll set yourself up for frustration.
Here are ways to avoid that trap: Let your spouse fill in for your weak spots. It’s much easier to let go of some aspects of child-rearing if you know that your mate can pick up the slack. Or fill in the gaps with day-care providers, teachers and relatives. As any parent knows, children arrive with surprising and unexpected gifts and talents. A child may be a natural athlete or dancer, even though both parents are klutzes. If that’s the case, don’t despair. Just run to others to help nurture the talent and passion. You may find a day-care program that offers dance or movement when your child is young; a coach who will take a special interest in her when she gets older. Or you may turn to a grandparent or aunt who shares your child’s interest.
You can still be involved with your youngster’s passion by making it clear how nifty you think it is that she has such special abilities, even though you don’t, psychologist Kuchenbecker advises. “You might say something like, ‘Oh, honey! This is so exciting! Nobody in our family has ever done theater! I can hardly wait to see you in the play.”’
In the end, by focusing on what you do well, you will give your child the greatest gift of all - a happy parent. The bottom line is, the family is a system,” says Cleminshaw. “It’s like the old song, ‘When Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.”’ And when Mama is happy, that good feeling fills the house.