As a new parent, I sometimes find myself stressing out about whether or not I am giving Rebekah the best start in life possible. Crazy thoughts sometimes bombard me: Oh no! We haven’t started a college fund yet . . . Can I feed her non-organic food?! (Just typing some of my thoughts out loud make me realize how nutty they are!)
One of my favorite things to do is to observe others. I know that makes me sound like a creeper . . . but I promise I am not! I like to observe couples and families who are raising healthy children to see how they approach life. Mitch and I have even taken the opportunity to get together with these admirable couples and families to ask them what they do to keep their marriage and family strong.
Here are some of the responses we have received over time about how to build a strong family and raise healthy kids:
Spend Time Together as a Family
This one sounds obvious, but in today’s busy culture the family can easily be neglected. Yes, it’s important that children study, socialize, exercise, and all of that stuff. But these things should not come at the expensive of spending time with family. Not having time with both parents and even siblings can actually be damaging to a child over time. So often parents overpack their children’s lives with things they think will help them get ahead. But activities can place extra stress on the children, parents, and family unit as a whole. In fact, one of the biggest indicators of a successful and well-adjusted adult is that they had positive time shared with their family. So, relax. Take time together as a family (not rushing here, there, and everywhere). Eat together, watch a movie, play games, go for a walk, or just simply be.
Keep Your Marriage Strong
Children can bring challenges. Money challenges, sleep deprivation, discipline issues, etc. These things can take a toll on any marriage. Often in the busyness and struggle of raising young ones, we can lose sight of our spouse. We collapse into bed (sometimes even shared with a toddler) too tired to talk, let alone have sex! And some days, like when children are sick, this may be unavoidable. But a major factor in raising healthy children and providing a healthy home life is the example your marriage sets. Your marriage leaves a legacy, be that good or bad. A strong marriage offers your children security. It also sets an example of what to look for in a future spouse and how to love a future spouse. If you neglect your marriage, there will be consequences.
Develop Good Eating Habits Early
Kids love sugar and junk food. This is one of those facts that you simply cannot escape. But it doesn’t mean you have to give into everything they want. You should focus on instilling positive eating habits from an early age. We all know that the problem of childhood obesity is getting worse every year. And eating disorders are all too prevalent. The mind, body, and spirit are all connected; so helping your child develop a healthy relationship with food is about more than just their weight.
Children will follow your example. You can’t eat junk and then expect your children to crave fruits and vegetables. Even at 9 months, Rebekah watches us eat. She is starting to reach for our food. She moves her mouth in a chewing motion while we eat. We know she will eventually want to eat what we eat. Now that is good motivation to eat healthy!
Live Your Faith
I have talked about the importance of having a genuine and active faith before, but it has been awhile. I will be revisiting this subject in more depth soon because it is so crucial. Simply dragging our kiddos to church will rarely help them fall in love with Jesus or develop a lifelong faith. Don’t get me wrong, church is very important! But even more important is the message that we communicate through how we live. I have seen so many teenagers struggle to reconcile their parents’ actions and attitudes with their parents’ desire for them to go to church and become a good Christian. God calls us, as parents, to pass on our faith. But if our faith is stale or hollow, our children will see right through it as fake. If our faith is genuine, active, and a part of who we are all the time, our children will be positively impacted by our example.
Find What Works for Your Family
Everyone and their dog has an opinion on what parenting choices are best. However, you have to find the method that is right for your family. There is no one-size-fits-all rule when it comes to parenting. There are some general, Biblical principles. But when it comes to breast or bottle, co-sleep or sleep train, spanking or timeouts, etc, there is not always a clearcut answer. Circumstances vary, personalities of parents and children vary greatly, and convictions differ. I try to ask around to families that I admire to gather their wisdom. But that doesn’t mean I implement all of it. People have drastically different ideas. Still, it gives me a reservoir of ideas and approaches that I can pray about and try.
Last night Rebekah slept through the night without waking to nurse. This was huge for us! The decision to sleep train or not was an area that we have gone back and forth on. We knew people who had strong opinions on both sides, but we were caught in the middle. We wanted to sleep train, but the thought of her crying and crying did a number on us. Co-sleeping in our bed was difficult. And there were always those who would talk about how they knew babies who died because of co-sleeping, which lead to me worrying about it a lot. She loves sleeping in her carseat, but we didn’t feel like that was an all-night solution. In the end, we dabbled in different methods, blended a couple, and put our own spin on them. For us, taking away her night light made a huge difference. (But that may have the opposite effect on another baby.) And, knock on wood, she went down without a single whine tonight! What we are learning is that you have to know your child, listen to your heart, consider advice, refuse to act out of guilt, and soak difficult decisions in prayer.
Nurture a Love of Learning and Support Their Interests (to a reasonable degree)
Education is undoubtedly important for children. Public, private, charter, homeschooled–the options are numerous. And like other parenting decisions, they are not one-size-fits-all choices. They will depend on your beliefs, your children’s needs, the school system where you live, money, and many other factors. I am an advocate of teachable moments in the home whether you homeschool or not; but beyond that, I believe it is about figuring out how to best nurture a love of learning within your children.
Private schools can be a wonderful option for smaller class sizes and religious instruction. Public schools offer a wide variety of opportunities, especially when it comes to extracurriculars. Homeschooling gives you more time with your children, one-on-one instruction as needed, and room for creativity and flexibility. We also had friends in Phoenix who loved their charter schools and Montessori schools because they fit the needs of their children. Regardless of the type of school you choose, try and support your children’s interests. Let them explore art, writing, film making, music, drama, sports, or whatever their interests. These avenues for creativity are beneficial even if they are not your child’s calling in life. However, don’t overdo it. Your children may have to pick. Family time is important, money can be tight, and if your only time together is driving from school to practice to McDonalds and to another rehearsal, your family life will become strained. Which leads me to my last point: leave time for them to play!
Let Them Play and Be Creative
We often think we need to start preschool when they are two, and have them taking college test prep courses their freshman year of high school. These pressures to succeed tend to squash play and creativity, which ironically are what really give our children a better chance at a more fulfilling life. Play is a BIG part of small children’s development. It’s when they’re playing and having fun that they can learn new things and experiment with different ideas. There should be fewer rules and more exploration when it comes to children’s play. If there are lots of restrictions on play time, then it isn’t really going to help our children develop and learn from their own instincts. So, give them the space and freedom to try new things when they’re playing.
Based on your experiences or observations, what would you add to this list?