With the holiday season upon us, so many people will be doing more family time so it’s really the perfect occasion to think about raising the kind of parents that are a benefit to the planet. My parents are both deceased but I see friends venting about their parents’ behavior all the time: they are recalcitrant, they are moody, they are impossible to get along with, they are an embarrassing reflection on their children. How did this happen? The bad news is there are no quick fixes but the good news is with a little time investment, you can help to put demonstrably better parents, parents you are proud of, out into the world.
Here are my five tips for raising thoughtful and well-rounded parents.
• Limit and curate their screen-time and media.
Concerned about how your parents are behaving? It is important to look at how your parents are spending their free time. Is it listening to disinformation on Fox News and paranoid propaganda on talk radio? Xenophobic tyrades on the hour? It’s no wonder your parents are having a violent and frightened reaction to life: just look at how they are filtering the news. The media can shape our worldview and with a competitive 24-hour news cycle, an endless stream of delusional ranting is all too available, and it certainly has consequences on the nerves and attitudes of even the most well-adjusted parents. Instead of too much screen-time, take your parents outside to enjoy nature. Encourage new hobbies. Make playdates with other parents you think would have a positive influence on them. (You will also have to guard against them socializing too much with the kind of parents who reinforce their worst habits and viewpoints.) Find media that supports a more nuanced and fair world view. My guess is with simply the media piece jiggered with, you will reap positive results in the form of happier, healthier parents in very quick order.
• Encourage open-mindedness
You may notice your parents reacting in defensive or fearful ways after being exposed to people who are from different countries — especially those where the people generally have darker skin than them — speak different language(s), have different cultural traditions and are of different religious faiths. It is never too early to help your parents understand that “different” is not synonymous with “worse” just as “alike” is not another word for “better.” Encourage a more expansive worldview by exposing them to a variety of people outside of their normal social circles, by using positive reinforcement when they demonstrate a willingness to move beyond their comfort zone and modeling your own lack of a fear response to people and cultures that are different from your own.
• Nurture within them caring about something bigger than themselves
Let’s face it: Parents can be pretty self-centered. When the whole world seems to revolve around their likes and dislikes, is it any wonder? You can help your parents contribute to a better world by helping them to see that so much more matters beyond their own experience by showing them how different people live, why this matters and how to help those who are less advantaged. Traveling is a particularly powerful antidote to a narrow perspective, but you can start in your own communities by, as mentioned above, expanding their horizons. There are so many ways to encourage your parents’ innate compassion and broader caring: Support them in efforts to find homes for stray animals, clean up trash in parks, volunteer with local charities that are age-appropriate. Plugging into a sense of purpose will help your parents be less self-centered and it is a gift that will keep on giving.
• Nurture within your parents productive ways to express emotions
Parents can be primitive little buggers, but they usually let you know when they are headed for a meltdown well in advance of an actual red-faced, obnoxious tantrum. Before we even get into that, though, it’s important to establish if the behavioral issues are easily remedied by attending to a simple need that’s been neglected. For example, might the grouchy parent in question actually be hungry, thirsty, hot, cold, overstimulated or in need of a nap? Before embarking on a corrective endeavor that is liable to worsen things, perhaps go through a quick mental checklist of other possible causes of their irritability. As the child of parents, it is your role to nurture their emotional intelligence. You can help to hone and develop this by working to expand your parents’ vocabulary around emotions, demonstrate that you are listening by mirroring to them what they have told you, calmly and non-judgmentally offer different possible perspectives and help your parents learn how to rationally problem-solve. Teaching life skills like breathing techniques, mindfulness and embodiment as well as the value of “I statements” can also help prevent more tantrums in the future. If all else fails, a good, old-fashioned time-out could be just what is needed for cooler heads to prevail. Should this happen out of the home, remember that while a colicky parent in public may fill us with dread, most people will understand and probably appreciate seeing another person navigate this terrain with realness and grace.
• Be a positive role model
All of this is for naught if you aren’t modeling these habits and behaviors yourself. Many parents can spot a hypocrite a mile away and the attitude of “Do as I say, not as I do,” is a tired axiom of a bygone era that should be retired. Today’s parents are just too savvy to try to pull this over on. Work on yourself — expand your own horizons, notice and correct things when you are too locked into your attitudes — as a way of showing your parents, who really do want to make you proud, that you are not above reproach. Along those lines, modeling the humility and honesty to acknowledge and address your own shortcomings demonstrates to your parents that doing our best to be good people is more important than protecting our pride. Yes, our egos might get bruised in the process but isn’t it worth it to raise thriving, happy parents?
So there you have it: Five tips for raising thoughtful and well-rounded parents.