Full Show Notes
Remember the days when you’d lose your mind over kids drawing on the walls or refusing to eat the dinner you prepared for them? You might still experience the same headache with your teenager. But you put up with it because parenting is about loving your children, no matter what wild rides they put you through! However, parents so often put themselves before their children, but they can unintentionally neglect their own happiness.
I don’t think parents should have to sacrifice their own happiness in order to be a successful parent and raise good kids. I think there’s a trick to simple happy parenting, and the best way to uncover it is to talk to the pros.
In order to figure out the tricks to happy parenting, I called up KJ Dell’Antonia. KJ has been a parenting expert for the better part of a decade, and she has a wealth of knowledge about happy parenting. KJ is an accomplished author, having written first for Slate and then the New York Times. She hosts a parenting podcast with Jessica Lahey, and she is also about to publish her first novel!
In addition to her personal career, KJ is an accomplished parent. She has raised four kids, and much of her parenting experience has fed her career as a writer. Her most recent book on parenting, How to Be a Happier Parent: Raising a Family, Having a Life, and Loving (Almost) Every Minute of It, is an awesome resource that I myself love. This week, KJ helps me investigate methods to happier parenting.
It’s a hectic Sunday afternoon. You’ve been running around all weekend, going from activity to activity. Two of your teens have soccer tournaments, and both are inconveniently located on opposite sides of town. If either one goes to overtime, you’ll be late to your third teen’s spring musical at the high school theater. You’re exhausted, and you still need to figure out dinner.
In the attempt to keep up with all of your teen’s activities, you hardly had a moment to catch your breath. In these moments of exhaustion, it can be so easy to feel discouraged when facing the world. But what strategies can you use to achieve simple happy parenting?
While she was editor for the New York Times, she wanted to share a piece on simple happy parenting. She decided to come up with a list of solutions that would make her feel happier as a parent. However, she quickly realized that she did not have enough time in the day to invest in “happy parenting” methods and needed to pivot her approach.
Instead of adding new activities to boost happiness like yoga, 2-hour runs, or hot stone massages, she needed to be taking stuff off her plate. Parenting is crazy enough, so reducing her hectic schedule is what helped KJ unlock the trick to happy parenting.
The key to happy parenting is finding ways to make parenting less stressful.
This proves to be a beneficial strategy, and sparked inspiration for How to Be a Happier Parent.
The “Ground Rule” Solution
KJ decided that the easiest way to make parenting less stressful was to create ground rules for certain parts of family life. This made expectations clear for everyone, and in turn reduced the general chaos of family life. One solution KJ created was a set of five ground rules for dinner because she found it difficult to make a meal without one of her children complaining. Here’s one in action:
Rule #1: At KJ’s table, everyone in her family has to accept everything on their plate. Before this rule, it was relatively common for one of her children to reject the food presented to them outright. In response, KJ said that everyone had to accept the food that is given to them. Whether or not everyone likes the food is up to them, but her teens can’t ask for a whole ‘nother meal to be made especially for them. Implementing this rule was great, KJ says, because it helped reduce her stress at the end of long days.
As she implemented this strategy of creating simple ground rules, KJ quickly found that this strategy wouldn’t work in every situation.
Another example she mentioned to me was getting dirty dishes in the dishwasher. One of her daughters would put her dishes in the dishwasher every time, and never needed a parent to stand over her shoulder to make sure things got in place.
Contrarily, KJ’s other daughter would chronically forget that the dishwasher ever existed. She would leave dirty dishes around all the time, and rarely get them in the dishwasher unless KJ was on her case about it.
In situations like these, KJ told me that sometimes there is nothing you can do to create happy parenting.
Ultimately, the trick for parents is that they need to be resilient about asking teens to complete tasks. It is a great help when they are done correctly, and these skills are things they will remember for the rest of their lives. Some teens will have no problem following rules, but others might need to be reminded on a daily basis. It might take a year of moving your kid’s dirty dishes to their bedroom for them to actually remember to clean them on their own!
But, don’t give up hope. You can’t expect teens to be perfect because progress doesn’t happen overnight. However, with the right guidance, the “ground rule” solution will help good behaviors become muscle memory to them.
Another strategy for simple happy parenting that KJ mentions is to avoid getting over-involved with your kids’ lives. Surprisingly, over-involvement is a common issue among fathers who fixate on their teenagers’ performance in sports. It is easy for these parents to get carried away with their teens’ lives because they want to be supportive and helpful, but it can be harmful for both the parent and the teen. Unfortunately, over-involvement in cheering for your teen has negative side-effects.
One downside to over-involvement is that parents can lose sight of themselves. If parents lose sight of themselves, they might also lose sight of happy parenting. It is important that parents make sacrifices for their kids, but not to the extent that they are constantly unhappy or unable to focus on themselves.
When you lose focus on yourself, your happiness can become dependent on what you are focusing on. If a father is constantly focused on his teen’s high school batting average, the teen might think Dad’s happiness is based on athletic performance. On one hand, it puts extra pressure on the teenager. On the other, basing a father-son relationship on something as insignificant as a high school batting average is unhealthy for everyone. It doesn’t make sense for a father (or anyone) to be happy only when their son is having a good day on the field. Teenagers should not be expected to bear the brunt of someone else’s happiness!
Parents can avoid over-involvement by looking at the bigger picture. By focusing on the bigger picture of what your teen loves to do, you can support them in a positive manner without becoming too attached to what they are doing. If your teen has been playing high school baseball for three years but wants to leave the team to do theater, be a fan of change! Spending less time worrying about your teen’s activities will free up time for your own happiness. Focusing on the bigger picture will help you build a healthier relationship with your teen, and everyone will be happier as a result.
A Final Word…
It can be so easy for parents to become lost in the worlds of their children. While parents do give their all for their kids, it is good to remember that you should still need to pursue your own happiness. There isn’t a foolproof way to reach happy parenting, but in this episode we reviewed many different strategies to simple happy parenting. In the rest of the episode, KJ and I discuss…
- How to avoid being that parent at sporting events
- Strategies to resolve differences between your children
- The 4 Categories of Sibling Battles
- The trick to chores
- And so much more!
I want to give a huge thank you to KJ Dell’Antonia. She is so thoughtful and helpful in sharing her secrets to happy parenting. For more of her awesome insight, check out her book How to Be a Happier Parent. Hope you tune in again soon!
Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview
1. Being a Role Model for your Teen:In my interview with KJ she mentioned that if a parent isn’t modeling happiness (or just is downright unhappy), kids and teens will be in nooo rush to become adults—it looks miserable! But it’s hard to just flip a switch and “be happy” because your kids are watching. Ideally, happiness is genuine. And knowing that teens have extra sharp lie-detectors, they will be able to see right through the masks. This exercise will focus on how to bring more happiness into your current parenting style in order to flow from the inside out with happiness. Pick three areas of parenting that right now, for lack of a better word, suck. Jot them down. It could be cooking dinner, driving kids around, being interrupted when you’re trying to work. For each situation, brainstorm for five minutes a list of changes that would decrease suckiness and increase happiness. For cooking, perhaps it’s the dinner time complaints that really make cooking unenjoyable. Or maybe when driving your teen you’ve been allowing them to choose (annoying) music. Make a new policy and institute it next week! If your teen is resistant, explain why you are instituting it and enlist them to brainstorming additional ideas with you.
2. The Sibling Arguments and How to Prevent Them:(Members Only)
Complete Interview Transcript
Andy: I read the book, How to be a Happier Parent and really had fun with it. A lot of parenting books are so focused on the kid and it’s very-
Andy: Well. Yeah. I mean, it’s like, well, “Hey, shouldn’t you be having a good time throughout this whole thing?” Like if this isn’t fun for you, which is what I hear from so many parents that they got one kid who just always ruins it all the time and it’s just not fun anymore. Or that homework has become such a intense situation that it’s just not even fun anymore. And it’s like, they don’t even want to go home and confront it. And that to me is so sad.
KJ: I think that’s more common than not. I really do. And I think a fair number of people even resist the idea that it shouldn’t be that way.
Andy: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. We see it as like our duty kind of. As parents, it’s a tough through and we’re supposed to be-
KJ: One must suffer to produce good children or something.
Andy: Yeah. There’s this kind of martyr archetype that we ascribe to a little bit as the [crosstalk 00:01:08] good parent or something like that.
KJ: Probably it comes more from the maternal side, but as we get more gender equality in parenting and we absolutely are, unfortunately we’re just sharing that piece as opposed to sharing the piece that’s more, you are a wonderful part of my whole life.
Andy: It does seem like it’s really linked to the kind of nurturing mother archetype though as far as the parents go. This kind of martyr aspect of that you should just be so giving, giving, giving, and not think of yourself at all.
KJ: Well, and if you don’t do it that way, then you’re doing it wrong. Or if you don’t do it that way and the child does not go to Harvard and become the president of the United States, then clearly you could have done more.
Andy: Okay. So talk to me about, this was a phase of your life when you wrote this book, How to be a Happier Parent. Talk to us about what propelled you into that whole endeavor.
KJ: It goes back so far. So I was a parenting journalist for a decade. I started at Slate. I wrote in a variety of posts. I wrote for parents. And then I moved on to the New York times where I wrote and edited the Motherload column for five years. And it was this ironic situation where I was writing about the thing that also made it hard for me to do my job. So my job was to write about all the people doing the thing that also was stressing me out. And I would be editing a piece about happy sports parents while frantically driving a kid to a sport or yelling at another one because… The ironies were deep. Right? But we were, when I started down that road, I have four kids within four years of each other. At the time that I started writing they were like four, four, six, and eight or something like that.
KJ: And we were just in this phase of life where everything… I mean, you just woke up in the morning and you put your skates on and you just started to go. And at night you just imploded onto the couch and we would feebly argue with each other about whose day sucked more. And it didn’t feel like there was anything we could do about it. They had to be driven to all these places. Where we live there’s no school bus and they went to different schools. And they need to do something after school, if they don’t, you’re going to, “What am I going to do?” It was just this really frantic time full of emptying the dishwasher and drying off small plastic cups. And I just kept thinking, “Man, I don’t feel like this is what I signed up for.”
KJ: So I was looking for a way to make it more fun. And that was actually my first book. And I’m writing for the time so I have this, this opportunity. I can write a book. And my first thought about a book was, this should be fun. And I started making a list of things that would be fun. And then I just looked at that list and I thought, “I don’t want to do fun things. I don’t want to do any more things. I do enough things. I just want the things we’re already doing not to be so stressful.”
Andy: Just so [inaudible 00:04:30] yeah.
KJ: I started to focus on that instead, because yeah, believe me, a list of more fun things is the last thing a parent of four-
Andy: You got enough going on at that point.
KJ: Almost certainly. If there’s anyone out there who’s like, “I don’t know. I feel like my afternoons are pretty empty with these four children.” Well, keep them that way. There’s a lot of joy to be found in emptiness.
Andy: There’s a couple of things that I really like in here. One of them in the chapter where you’re talking about chores, you said you guys have tried just about everything. Star charts, reward chips that could be cashed in at the mom’s store, fines for failure to perform, bonuses for stellar performance, offering their allowance in the form of a single dollars in a cup and taking a dollar out every time a chore wasn’t done docking allowances for compliance about shorts, countless other strategies that I have forgotten. Here’s what I learned through my own experience and interviews with other parents. Any of those things can work. So why didn’t they for us? Because we didn’t stick with them.
Andy: So, what did you figure out that finally worked?
KJ: I hate this so much because it is still true. The secret to getting your kids to do chores is to make your kids do chores. There is no secret. You can pay them, you can bribe them, you can give chips, you can put stars on. It doesn’t matter. People who get their kids to do chores are people who expect their kids to do chores, who don’t accept excuses for not doing chores, who put being a helpful member of the family as a high priority as it should be. And just that’s the way they live their lives. And that is so hard. Because the truth is that it is indeed easier that you do it yourself. Absolutely. 100%.
KJ: I mean, there are times when you’re like, “Yeah, sorry, I can’t be in three places at once. Teenager who drives a car.” So you get to go pick up your sibling and [crosstalk 00:06:37] that happened. That’s a different kind of thing. Now, when it comes to like the towel on the floor of the bathroom, or emptying the dishwasher, or feeding the animals, yes, it’s easier to do it yourself than it is to nag the child into doing it. I just hate that. I want there to be a magic bullet. But there is not. So we, I mean, as a family, we still struggle with this. And our kids will tell you, yeah. We should do our chores. We’re really bad about that. They’ll say. Like they get bonus points for knowing that it’s terrible, that we have to nag them.
KJ: And I still have these conversations in the car with my younger daughter, “Please get a kitten. I’ll feed it every day and I’ll feed all the animals.” And I’m just like, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. This is not my first kitten Rodeo, my [inaudible 00:07:21] we had two cats and two dogs and two mini ponies and nine chickens. And getting you people to feed them is like…”
Andy: Yeah. Right.
KJ: No kitten.
Andy: Yeah. You think in your mind like, “Oh, it would be good because it would teach them responsibility.” But you don’t realize that it would be a vehicle for you to teach them responsibility.
KJ: That is exactly right.
Andy: There is a lot of work involved in that whole situation.
KJ: There really is. And that is one of those places where you just have to remember that, what you want now is not what you will want later. So, you want kids who know that if they drink something out of a cup, they’re going to take it and put it in the dishwasher. And that means that you’re going to spend six to 12 years making them do that every single time. Pretty much. I mean, once in a while, but the problem with that once in a while, I’m just going to grab the cup and put it in the dishwasher for you, keep track people, keep track. Because suddenly you realize, “Wait a minute, I did this an hour ago, and two hours ago.” Yeah. We really, because it’s easier because it avoids conflict, we really, it’s so easy to slip down the road of just getting the thing done.
Andy: Yeah. And once you do it once, then it’s easy to do it again. You talk about a scientific study that you conducted, that it takes, I think, about five of constantly nagging a child to remove their dishes from the table before they will actually begin to do it on their [crosstalk 00:09:02]
KJ: No, this was a very unscientific study conducted entirely in my kitchen on a subject set of four. And now coming at it from a few years later, I will add that there is, to some degree, there’s some personality stuff in here. I have four kids. One of them will put her dish in the dishwasher every time, every time. Really, if there’s a dish on the table, it’s not hers. Another one, she doesn’t know where the dishwasher is. I don’t think she could locate it. And they have their… They are barely a year apart. They have received, other than the differences in siblings, essentially the same degree of nagging parenting. It’s just one of them is a harder to get through to than the other apparently. And we’re still trying.
Andy: So you write in here that sibling battles fall into four different categories, jealousy, property rights, space occupation, and pure devil tree. Can you talk about what those are and how those work, what you should do about them?
KJ: So I’m going to check off the four. We’ve got pure devil tree. This is mine, this is my space and jealousy. Right? All right. So really they’re all jealousy. I mean, it’s hard to share your parents. It just inherently… It inherently is, and it’s hard to have other people in your space constantly even if you’re used to it. And there’s just some degree of friction that is, it’s constant. And in our house it was, when I was writing the book between two children in particular, it was constant and it was horrific and it was painful. And I will say, it’s been a couple of years now, and it’s not like that anymore. So hallelujah turned out that we were not in King Lear territory as I really deeply believed that we were.
KJ: So the time to start teaching your kids how to resolve their own sibling differences is, well, is now. If your kids are small-
Andy: Was definitely.
KJ: Well, yeah. If your kids are small, then that’s better. But if they’re not, they’re not. So if you’ve got little kids, you really probably do need to be in there regularly talking to them about, “Well, let’s, let’s look at what’s happening here.” So it’s easier to have a couple of maybe black letter rules that you just fall back on. So for us with stuff, if it’s your thing, it’s your thing. That can be a little hard because some things belong to everyone and then it’s a different negotiation, but we have this policy that even if it was your tee shirt and you outgrew it six years ago, if you don’t want your sister to have it, okay, it’s your tee shirt. I mean, if it’s a pair of skis and it’s going to cost me 300, that would be different, that didn’t come up for us.
KJ: But even if there’s no reason for you to want that McDonald’s happy meal from… No. Toy from five years ago that we just found under the car seat, [crosstalk 00:12:23] but it’s yours and we can, for some reason, all remember that it’s yours, then it’s still yours and that is fine. And then space gets to be really challenging. My kids all, when I wrote the book, I had four kids in two rooms. During the writing of the book, I think we split the girls up so that now we have no guest room anymore and we have… Because we had to, because they were going to kill each other. And it is-
Andy: You do write about, they’re kind of like butting heads in the book. Yeah.
KJ: Yeah. So the space stuff is kind of really can be super challenging because you’ll get kids who have a different feeling about space. Who can feel alone just because they have headphones on or just because they’re reading a book and they’re focused. And then you have kids that just need the whole room. And sometimes you have to look for those little weirdnesses and make rules that don’t seem, or make accommodations that don’t seem fair. Fair. Fair is an evil word. Fair is a very difficult word.
Andy: I think it’s interesting that you point out you have these rules about stuff that’s really specific in your house and then seem like a theme in the book, because then later on you also had rules about dinner time, you had the five dinner time rules.
KJ: I can probably recite the dinner time rules.
Andy: You got to know those. You got those down at this point. Yeah?
KJ: Well, the dinner time rules, they sort of evolve. And yeah, I did four… I mean, I have four kids and right now I’m a full time writer but at the time of writing the book I had a full time job. I needed black letter laws. I needed to just say, “Okay, fine. You can watch TV on the weekend, but there’s no TV on the weekdays. Because I can’t have a 20 minute conversation with you every time you want to watch TV because that’s every five minutes. That is not going to make me happy.” Yeah. So that’s why we would have these sort of, just policies. It’s easier to have a policy. Then you can make exceptions to the policy if you want to.
KJ: All right. Dinner time. Yeah. So I’m the primary cook in the family. I like to cook. I like to cook a lot. I don’t like people to insult what I have cooked. So we had these rules. I may not come up with all five, but broadly speaking, and these are so ingrained that they still remain but we certainly don’t ever have to use them anymore.
Andy: Right. Yeah, call them [crosstalk 00:14:55].
KJ: Broadly speaking, you have to accept everything on your plate but you don’t have to eat or taste any of it. There will be no pressure to eat something that you do not wish to eat, but we may tell you that we think it’s good. And that’s actually usually siblings, “No, it’s actually really good. It looks mushy.” But you are not allowed to say negative things about the food. You are not allowed to say yuck. You are not allowed to say, eer. You’re certainly not allowed to say that looks gross.
KJ: If you say any of those things, you will leave the table and there will be no further dinners, no dessert, no… And that you only have to do that to a kid really once, especially when they’re little, they didn’t like that. And so we had a no food after dinner rule, but we would also make sure, this is a little chaotic because I didn’t remember them all in order, but we would also make sure, at every meal, I just made sure to serve something that everybody could conceivably eat. So, if you don’t like meatloaf, there’s bread and butter. If you don’t like whatever it is we’re serving, there’s rice. If you don’t like meatballs, I didn’t put the meatballs on the pasta until you sat down.
KJ: And by and large it’s worked. They’re all pretty good eaters. They all eat most things. The day that my oldest looked at me and said, “Well, I don’t really have to love it to eat it.” I was like, “Yes, that is the point. “I am not only going to serve you things that you love, I am sorry. I don’t even serve me only things that I love. Because that would mean I never, ever, ever ate anything except like [crosstalk 00:16:32]
Andy: I only eat ice cream. Yeah.
KJ: Yeah. That would be a poor choice for me. I mean, we talk about healthy eating. We talk about what we’re mixing up. We talk about process. We had a lot account because food is really important part of our lives and we have a garden and the kids cook with me all the time. That’s big in our particular house, but I really feel like the first one makes a big difference to their willingness to try and explore things. And the second one makes a huge difference to me. Because if you look at my food and you tell me that it looks gross, somebody might throw things and it might be me.
Andy: Yep. I always think if you can get kids to do things without feeling like it’s because you’re pressuring them to do it, but just because they wanted to explore it themselves, it’s always better. So not making them feel like they’re being forced to eat certain foods or that they have to, but just that, it’s there and it’s an option, and you’re not going to be judged either way, I think it’s really powerful.
About KJ Dell’Antonia
KJ is an author, writer, and podcaster. She is a former New York Times reporter as well as contributing editor to Slate. She wrote and edited the Motherlode and Well Family columns for the times from 2011-2016 and 2016-2017, respectively. Her first book How to Be a Happier Parent was the product of her years of work and research into the parenting realm. KJ currently co-hosts the Am Writing Podcast (with our recent guest Jessica Lahey) and her second book, The Chicken Sisters, due out in April 2020, is her first foray into fiction.
KJ lives on a farm in New Hampshire with her husband and four teens. She is adamant that the family does not need any more animals besides their two miniature horses, nine chickens, cats and dogs.