How Doing This 1 Thing Helped Me Truly Enjoy Spending Time With My Kid

You gotta be you.

November 22, 2017
mom and daughter

As a parent today I feel as if I'm constantly inundated with fervent, well-meaning, parenting advice coming at me from all angles: in person, in magazines, on the phone, and all over social media. (Read more about how a one-week digital detox made this writer a better mom.)

“Early music education is essential for the development of young brains," I'll hear as I contemplate signing my son up to learn to play violin. Then, “Baby swim lessons boost immune system and teach important life skills.” Okay, got it. Get the swim lessons.Then it's “Cooking with your kids promotes healthy eating habits," and "crafting promotes creativity." Huh. Better start teaching him to cook and craft, too. 

I don't know if the generations of parents before ours were subjected to such an extraordinary amount of pressure to conform to externally established parenting ideals, but the pressures of our time feel very real to me. (Here are 7 old-school parenting tips that seem crazy in the modern age.)

Day after day after day of my son's first few years of life, no matter what I did, this vague feeling of guilt always ran on the back of my mind, nagging me: “You are not doing enough... You can do better than that ...He hasn't been outside today.... He has had three hours of screen time already… It's almost 4pm and the most enriching activity of his day was watching a full washing machine cycle (or, wait, does that fall under ‘screen time?).”

My thoughts would scroll on, poisoning what could have been simply a wonderful time with my favorite little person.

(Brag your love of gardening with the Organic Life 2018 Wall Calendar, featuring gorgeous photographs, cooking tips and recipes, plus how to eat more—and waste less—of what's in season.)

girl making mess in kitchen
If You Force It, You'll Hate It

One day, when my son was about three and a half, I suddenly realized that we hadn’t done any baking together yet. He had reached the respectable age of three without ever even having held a roller pin in his hands. How much more neglectful could I get? 

Related: I Taught My Son To Bake By Giving Him Free Rein In The Kitchen

Worried that our parent-child bond might have been irreparably damaged, I made an emergency trip to a local kitchenware store to buy a cookie sheet (the mere fact that I didn't have any before should have been a warning sign) and all the ingredients, and marked a day in the calendar. (Here are 7 healthy no-bake snack balls you can eat on the go.) Suffice it to say that the whole baking-together experience cost me a lot of nerves but in my son’s memory is probably imprinted as this mysterious event of "Mommy sweeping the floor and crying while I try to build a snowman out of dry stuff that looks like snow." But hey, baking togethercheck. 

If you are interested in a fun kitchen project, watch the video below to find out how to make butter with an electric mixer. 

girl rolling eyes at dad
Eric Audras/getty
If You Fake It, Your Kid Will Know

When my son was four, I embarked onto what would become a two-year long odyssey to try and do more crafts together, due to advice about the benefits of crafting with kids. Every once in a while, struck by a crippling feeling of guilt because of not developing his creativity, I would ran to an arts and crafts store and grab what promised to be the least messy crafts experience: usually an origami set that very helpfully said 3+ on the cover.

A couple of days later you could witness the following quality craft time in our house: I’d be sitting at the kitchen table and cursing under my breath while trying to fold a paper monkey according to some vague instructions that were NOT designed for a four-year old, but needed at least two adult hands to complete.

In the meantime, my son would be playing with cars in the living room and checking in with me periodically to see how his craft project was coming along. Depending on my lucky stars that day, the creation might or might not have been finished, my kid might or might not have had a tantrum related to the quality and/or state of doneness of the paper monkey, and I would solemnly swear to myself to never again get into origami business ever in my life.

Related: Why More Parents Are Seeking Out Natural Cures For Their Kids—And 9 Cures To Try

But then a month or two later I would be visiting the crafts store again and would stumble upon an origami set themed with something that my son was interested in at the time (Oooh... Dinosaurs! He would loooove to make an origami dinosaur!) I would buy the damn thing again, completely forgetting my previous experience and oblivious to the inevitable reality that I was buying the origami set for myself. The whole experience would repeat itself almost in its entirety. After a few experiences like this I know better than to let myself go anywhere near kid sections at craft storesever.

Related: I Kept Traveling The World After I Had My Baby—Here Are My 5 Top Tips For Kid-Friendly Travel

origami dinosaur
Allow Yourself And Your Kid To Have Your Own Interests

I do learn eventually. Over the years I've learned to ignore the overwhelming pressure to be a certain kind of parent and got into the habit of basing my parenting decisions on what feels right for me, and for us as a family. So, no crafts for us. If one day he wants to create anything, here is some paper, glue, scissors, whatever. Same goes for baking. I’m out of it. (A decision thanks to which he has now, four years later, taught himself to bake.)

I also rarely if ever engage in pretend play because, frankly, I hate it, and I'm pretty sure he can tell that I hate it. That’s what playdates and recess are for. 

I finally realized, that I may not be perfect, but I know what I like. I like reading to my son, at bedtime, after lunch, in the morning, in the park, any time. I do it not because some authority or friend told me it's good for him, but because I happen to genuinely enjoy it. We also have an unbendable rule that every Sunday we go swimming in the local pool. He might protest a little bit but we still go and it’s easy for me to say, "Too bad kid, we have to go." 

Why? Because I love swimming, and because I know that he loves it, too, once he gets there. And like reading, this is something that was part of my world before he was born (unlike baking and origami.) I think it's important for me to be an authentic mom: to introduce him to my world, and the things I am genuinely interested in and passionate about, not just the things I am trying to check off a parenting list. 

Related: I Tried Meditating Daily With My 4-Year-Old Kid For A Month—Here’s What Happened

mom reading to son
Hero Images/getty
But Look For Ways To Share Those Interests Together

Now, if we’re doing something together, it’s because at least one of us really enjoys it, and the other agrees to join. He joins me in swimming and I join him in watching his favorite Youtubers together. I won’t force him to do stuff that he hateslike sitting around in coffee shops with me and I won’t force myself (anymore) to do stuff with him that I can barely tolerate. Because the truth is, he's smart enough to know. 

Related: My Secret To Sane Parenting: Give Yourself Time To Do Absolutely Nothing At All

Parenting is hard enough as it is. I had to learn to stop making it harder for myself by imposing arbitrary standards. I believe as parents we are introducing the kids into our world, and we were here first with our interests, preferences, and desires, so the most natural thing is to introduce them to the activities we already like doing: be it swimming, or video games, or bird watching.

For better or for worse, our preferences and desires are going to be the things our kids are going to grow up around anyway. And those preferences don't have to be origami. That being said, the best parenting advice I've got for you? Learn to relax, let go of expectations, think about what you like to do. Then give your kids the best gift you could ever give themthe gift of you.