Results of a recent study might best be announced by Captain Obvious, but, since he’s unavailable, here it is:
Parental burnout is real.
Belgian researchers recently surveyed 2,000 parents and found that close to 13 percent of them suffered from “high burnout” — dads in nearly the same number as moms. Another 31 percent reported “average burnout.”
The researchers, writing in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, noted that parental burnout paralleled job burnout, in that subjects felt exhausted and less competent. Many also reported increased emotional distancing from their children.
While parenting in any era is an imposing proposition, the authors noted that 21st-century mothers and fathers face unique challenges that make burnout more likely. All that schlepping to soccer (piano, dance, theater, chess camp); all that balancing of work expectations with throwing the best birthday party ever to save face on Facebook; all those college worries beginning in preschool, those health worries beginning in utero.
It’s amazing, really, that anyone steps up. But we do, of course, because … well, they do eventually sleep through the night and then they sleep until 1 p.m. and then they go off to college and you miss them with an intensity that scares you.
So, here’s what I think we need to do in response to this study. I say we turn away from our kids (unless, of course, they’re in the bathtub, or about to cross the street).
I mean this theoretically. I believe there is wisdom for frazzled modern parents in parenting backward a bit, in asking ourselves: When our children are adults, (and they do become adults eventually), what qualities do we hope they will carry with them into this great big world?
My hunch is that when we craft our lists, we will realize that many of the choices we are making now, choices that are stressing us out, aren’t creating a direct pipeline to those dreams.
I offer a few examples of how things could be made better, realizing, of course, that a more in-depth list would include paid parental leave, uniformly flexible work hours and big fines for anyone who begins advice with, “When I was a young parent.”
But I hope these strategies provide an avenue to less stress and more enjoyment of our awe-inspiring kids.
• We want our children to be happy. But too often, we connect happiness to things. Happiness is in doing and, usually, for others. Volunteer together as a family. Know your neighbors and bake for them. Visit great-grandparents in their assisted-living facility.
• We want our kids to have character. Let’s teach them to be gracious winners, and gracious losers. Ice cream all around when they legitimately win a ribbon. A hug when they played hard and didn’t. Explain to them they simply cannot win all the time. While you’re at it, stop yelling at the coach or ref and, instead, buy him or her a gift card.
• We want our kids to be self-sufficient. Let’s teach them to walk to the bus stop or to the park alone, take light rail when they’re old enough, lock up the house, feed the dog. Gift them with the euphoria of independence at age-appropriate stages, which vary depending on the child.
• We want our kids to be respectful of money and what it takes to earn a dollar. Encourage them to work, be it babysitting or delivering pizzas or tutoring other kids. Let them see you paying the bills. Those cable shows they love? Make sure they know you’re paying for them.
• We want our kids to have healthy adult relationships. So, fight in front of them when you must, but make up respectfully in front of them, too. Explain, in language they understand, that life is messy, people get angry, disappointment is inevitable. There is wonder and relief in seeing that we don’t give up.
• We want our kids to have a healthy body image. Then we must love our own bodies. Exercise as a family. Go for bike rides. Present physical exercise as something life-extending and lifelong. Shop at farmers markets together. Cook together.
• We want our kids to understand that the world does not revolve around them. Encourage study abroad, mission trips, a stint in the Peace Corps or AmeriCorps.
• We want our kids to become independent thinkers. Provide access to views outside your own, be it a periodical or your brother. Encourage them to write a letter to the editor. Here’s information on how to do that at my favorite daily: strib.mn/2rfSwhU
• We want our kids to be grateful. Let them help you write thank-you notes and see you saying, “Thank you.”
• We want our kids to be good conversationalists. Practice with them. Sit down to dinner together at least once a week. If you work the night shift, make weekend brunch a ritual. All phones go into a basket. Let everyone take the floor to talk about his or her day. Ask questions. Teach them to be good listeners.
• We want our kids to be professional athletes. Sorry, I can’t help you there, other than to point out that of the nearly 8 million students participating in high school athletics in the United States, only a fraction will become professional or Olympic athletes, according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association. If you are schlepping to practices in the early morning, during the dinner hour, into the darkness of night, if you are ruining your weekends, ask yourself if you might be less stressed if you cut back. The many rich life skills learned through sports, including strategizing, teamwork and the thrill of victory, can be discovered in a pickup basketball game in the driveway.
• We want our kids to find meaningful work and support themselves (and us). Tall order, that. But allowing them to chase their passions, not ours, while also diversifying their skill sets (can they analyze and organize, write and communicate, be curious?) will give them a step up in an ever changing job market.
• We want them to know that they can always turn to us in times of need, no matter how old they are. Then tell them so, over and over.
That doesn’t prevent you, of course, from turning their bedroom into your office.