If getting kids back in the groove after the holidays has you about to tear your hair out, you're not alone. I'm sure I could be a better parent if I wasn't working, cooking, commuting, paying bills, and doing all the other super-fun things on my to-do list.
But I took heart from David Palmiter, a clinical psychologist and father of three children in Clarks Summit, Pa., whose new book, Working Parents, Thriving Families: 10 Strategies that Make a Difference (Sunrise River Press, $16.95), focuses on how hectic parents with limited time and energy can do better by their kids in 2011. Here's an edited version of our conversation:
Here it is, the beginning of January, and already I feel like I'm falling behind with the kids. Is it just me?
Sometimes I think I'm doing a bad job as a parent because I'm so crazy busy. [But it's more useful to] try to think about what I can do with those precious snatches of time that will most promote happiness and wellness in my kids.
You emphasize parenting strategies that have been scientifically tested and proven effective. What's the biggest?
One-on-one time with the kids. It's not "quality time." It's really paying attention to your child, and praising him or her. It's the difference between bowling and spending an hour looking your child in the eyes and telling her why she is important to you.
That sounds time-consuming.
Just one hour a week of special time will work wonders with a difficult child.
I think I can manage that! What else should I be doing to keep the family glued together?
Self-care. One of the best gifts you can give your children is your own peacefulness. It's incredibly important in terms of promoting kids' wellness. And it's also very hard for many parents to pull off, because they're so stressed about work, the economy, and jobs.
So I can tell myself that going to the gym or taking a walk is good for the kids?
And you say that rituals really help keep the family balanced, even if they're not big, fancy, once-a-year events like holidays.
When I ask children about their favorite family memories, a lot of them will talk about a ritual. They're islands of stability in the torrential currents of our culture.
One I really like is a rotating gratitude letter. Each week you pick one member of the family. Everyone else writes that person a letter explaining why they're grateful for him or her. Adolescents and adults can write 300 words, and the younger kids can draw pictures. That person sits in a chair while everyone reads their letters. It's very common for both the reader and recipient to tear up. That's creating the kind of memory that lasts forever.
Rituals seem to have a protective function for kids. Even if the family is going through a divorce or other tough time, you can say: We still go to temple every week, or we still have pizza night, or we still have family game night. The more the rituals are in place, the less their lives change.
What's an easy way to start a new family ritual?
There's a family game night module on Nintendo's Wii. If you take your average 12-year-old and ask him to play a board game, it's like proposing going to the dentist. If you do it on the Wii, it's fine.