I remember when my four children were all under six years of age. I didn’t find it very fun. One step ahead of me in the parenting journey, I watched my eldest sister parent and I saw all the things she was doing with her children. I wondered why I couldn’t manage to go out and do all the things she seemed to be able to do. I was flat out getting out to the grocery shop each week! It made me worry I wasn’t giving my children the kind of childhood — full of memories — that I hoped for.
Now I’m at a different stage with my children, the stage I saw my sister years ago, and I AM doing all those fun things I hoped to do. I’ve given this a lot of thought. Nine years ago, I had a quest to Be A Fun Mum, and it has led me to fully embrace each stage I’m in and I do fun things WITHIN that stage. This has been instrumental in helping me be more fun with my kids and enjoy each stage. Let me explain further.
First, I’ve drawn up a table with a very broad overview of the parenting stages. When you have quite a few children, you could be parenting in a few (or all) of the stages at once; however I typically find the stages follow the eldest child, so it’s more about your parenting journey rather than the age of the child. Of course, this is just my view and is informed by my experiences, but I have found in general, this rings true for many. I broke things down into an action (something to do), a challenge (something difficult), a goal (something to work on) and a role (for me as a parent). What I’ve learned is each stage is SO important, and you can rush it or wish it away, hoping for the next stage to come.
Stage 1: Toddlers & Babies – Bonding
Research shows that bonding is imperative throughout a child’s life, and especially in those early years. So here, the focus isn’t memory making (as I saw my sister do in the stage above me), it’s bonding, and that gave me a fresh perspective, and helped me realise that I WAS doing fun things with my kids, and to recognise it as such. You’ll find many of these super simple things in the Love the Moment list I have here.
- Carry them
- Chat while making dinner
- Get down on their level
- Talk to them, include them in every day activities
- Stare at them
A challenge: Physically Demanding
This stage is physically exhausting. Not only with the broken sleep, but carrying the constant (absolutely constant) responsibility of another being. I remember a paediatrician telling me once about parenting a child with special needs, “Kelly, when you find it hard, it’s okay. Because it IS hard.” That seemed like such a simple thing to say, but it helped me so much. If you’re weary parenting in those early days, that’s because IT IS exhausting. This gives you permission to be whatever you need to be sometimes.
A goal: Establish Family
I remember feeling proud when my husband and I took our young family (three children at that stage) on a family holiday at the coast. But it turned out terrible! Haha. The children’s routine was broken and we got less sleep than usual, the unit wasn’t ideal because it had open windows and a balcony and I spent majority of the time stressing the children were going to plunge to their demise. AND we ended up sick. Nightmare! I don’t mean never do family holidays in the early years, but this is more about being realistic about what they can look like. Part of establishing a family in those early years is about working stuff out — working out what you can manage, what sort of holidays you enjoy (or don’t), working out what your family-with-kids looks like. There can be a lot of trial and error and that’s okay.
A role: The Robot
It sounds pretty bleak when I write it down like that. No one really wants to be a robot. As I look back over the time when I had four small children under six years of age, I DID feel like a robot. But what I realise now, the stage IS important. I wrote more about what I mean by this here. You see, The Robot role IS important because it’s the stage when you do need to satisfy and nurture the needs of another. I always found it a bit frustrating when people used to say to me, “just rest”, like it was an easy option. What does that mean when you literally are responsible for another life 24/7?
You get up, and you go through the motions — do all the things — and then get up the next day to do it all again. That doesn’t mean you can’t be you, or take time for yourself, but for me, understanding that there was a purpose to this stage, and knowing it would end, and also making sure I invested in those little things that I personally valued while also investing in my little one’s lives, gave me purpose. It’s the foundation of unconditional love that we extend to our babies and it’s a crucial first step.
Stage 2: Primary School Age – Belonging
Create Memories: Fun things
- Family Holidays
- Family Fun Nights
- Read together
- Weekend Day Trips
- Camping trips
- Exploring your city (like a tourist)
- Road trips
A challenge: Fostering Independence
One of the most challenging things about this stage is finding that balance between fostering independence, and making sure our family still works! Probably the biggest thing I had to learn during this stage is to say no to micro-managing (which I explain in more detail in the linked post). It’s about allowing natural consequences to ride out as much as possible and helping the children develop their own personal integrity.
A goal: Create Memories
In terms of fun, this stage is awesome! See, the thing is, the children tend to be at the stage where it’s easier to go places and do things, but they (usually) still move with the family schedule. As they get older, they start to branch out into their own lives and can’t always participate in family activities. There is nothing wrong with that, it just changes.
Typically, this second belonging stage is when the kids are in primary to early high school. This is the perfect time to invest in family experiences together. And even more than that, think about recognising and investing in family culture. I’ve seen this as SO valuable in the next stage (stage 3 where I currently am at). What I mean by family culture, is words, interests, memories, stories and values that are unique to your family and represent a shared history. For example, our family love Star Wars, and books, and movies, and travel, and food — and so they act as directional markers for our family life. Over the years, we’ve developed funny words that no one else would really understand, games have evolved and traditions have been established — these are key things that make up the fabric of our family life. It’s about investing in experiences, and creating an environment of belonging.
A role: The Superhero
You know when the kids are younger and they think you’re (kind of) awesome? This is it. In many ways, they see you as invincible. You are there, and in many ways, you are not seen by the kids as having needs of your own. I explain this further here. The first stage is about bonding and establishing unconditional love, and this is extended through this stage. However the role changes, in that it’s about fostering that respect they have for you as a parent through action. Use that influence to build them up as a person. That is why I said fostering independence is important but such a challenge during this stage. There’s a responsibility to use your influence in a wise way, so that the aim isn’t to CONTROL the child to do what you want (or need), but to use the influence to edify them as they continue to develop. It’s about being the net that catches; it’s the wall that holds; it’s the arms that surround.
Stage 3: Adolescence – Supporting
- One on one time
- Big (once in a life-time) family holiday
- Family lunches
- Sporing events
A challenge: External Pressures
During this stage, I’ve found dealing with the external pressures challenging. You see, these pressures are largely out of my control, however I am still involved because this stage is still very hands on (just in a different way than when they are babies). The adolescence’s world expands quite rapidly during this stage, and this coincides with a big developmental jump too. There are great things about this, but it brings certain challenges that are not as prevalent in the earlier stages. There can be friendship challenges, influences from social media, and school and work pressures, just to name a few. When I discuss this stage with other parents, we agree that it’s seems to be largely about managing logistics (driving people around) and emotional wellbeing (making sure everyone is doing okay).
A goal: Encouragement
What I’ve found is most helpful during this stage is positioning yourself as your child’s biggest fan. Teens are such interesting, amazing people! There’s a lot of negativity surrounding this stage, however I have found that it’s useful and important to hold them to the highest and believe in their potential — first. That needs to be the heart and I always tackle things with a belief in their potential to make good decisions for themselves. Then, this is surrounded by firm but flexible boundaries, and there’s an assumption here that the boundaries are negotiable. The best relationships are when you have someone you can contend with — who can meet you and shape you. This goes both ways, and I can say that my teens have helped me to be a better person. So in a nutshell, I interact with my teens with respect as a base assumption while acknowledging the realities that come with adolescent development. One of the best articles I’ve read about adolescent development — in that is has a good balance between being positive and real — is here: The Adolescent Brain: What Teens Need to Know. It’s actually directed at teens, but it’s such a great article for parents to read.
Even though teens tend to be very independent, I have found that they still really need you there…to support them. What is awesome about this stage is there are fun things you can do to achieve this. Like taking them out for one on one time. Driving them around places and chatting in the car. As they get older, you can usually enjoy the same movies together. There are a lot of ways to foster the relationship. Teens need support. A lot of it, and that is my focus during this stage.
A role: A person
Teens see through you, so honesty is vital. During the previous stage, kids are not so aware of all the going ons that make up life. But teens are different — in many ways, they are probably one of the most savvy people I’ve met because they are truth seekers. What I have found is there is an opportunity to be known, be recognised, for who I am — and share that with my children. So in this way, it’s about allowing myself to be vulnerable, underpinned by the trust that comes from relationship (that has developed over many years). I can tell you right now, having a relationship with my children as they get older, is one of the best and most rewarding things in my life! Something I have done intentionally is take myself out the equation in terms of organising things as much as possible. So for example, my eldest daughter has a tutor come each week, but I don’t organise it. She finds it valuable, and she organises it, and then tells me when she is coming, and I pay for it. This is a simple picture of how I strive to work this stage: pushing as much back on them, but being the big backer — their BIGGEST FAN — in everything they do.
Stage 4: Adulthood – Friendship
I’ll be at this stage next year – can’t believe it! I think the part of letting go will be the most challenging, however I’ll write more about it in a few years.
Dr Harley Rothbart — author of No Regrets Parenting — said something that blew my mind. Did you know that you only have about 940 Saturdays before your child becomes an adult. That’s it. My eldest is almost 17 now, and as I look back I realise just how important each stage is. You can’t rush it or wish it away because each stage builds on the other. Invest in bonding, then create an environment of belonging, before moving into a supporting role. Understanding these stages and shaping my expectations and actions accordingly have been instrumental in navigating parenting. And, it’s made the process more fun too.