Coach Mike: 18 Tips on Parenting
Parental advice from local Mike Sager
Illustration by Lars Leetaru
A few years ago I was at dinner at a friend’s house. The Weiners don’t entertain often, but they put out a good spread. As it happened, the last time I was there I ended up sitting at the long table beside a woman in her early thirties. She was eight months pregnant with her first.
Of course we spoke about her pending life change. Her immediate plan, she said, was to work one more week, then go home and ready the nursery. Thanks to her firm’s liberal policies, she’d be taking a full six months for maternity leave.
“I can’t wait to start my novel,” she said with conviction.
I’m sure I did some kind of double take. It took me ten years to finish my first novel (the protagonist is a man who suffers from post-partum depression). My second took five. Maybe I’d heard wrong.
“I figure taking care of a baby can’t be as hard as being a junior partner. I’ll need something to do with my extra time.” With a knowing smile she levitated her hands above her fecund belly and pretended to type.
No matter how many books by how many experts you read, or how many other parents you know, or how many babies and children you may have taken care of, nothing really prepares you for parenthood.
Yes, you can study like a scholar and stockpile lots of interesting and useful facts, learn all of the recommended rules, conjure up all kinds of scenarios, plan it all out on your calendar years in advance.
But honestly, until you get into the game for the first time, you have no clue. It’s like the marines say: As soon as you pass the line of debarkation, all bets are off.
For me, this realization started at the moment of my son’s birth. My ex had a sonogram at my father’s OBGYN office at about 26 weeks to sex the child. For some reason, my father’s youngest partner was delegated the task.
As my wife lay on the exam table, her growing belly schmeared with goo, the young doctor proclaimed enthusiastically: “I see labia. Congratulations. You have a girl!”
Fifteen weeks later, my son was born. (Our sonogram guy later washed out of medicine due to chronic nervous issues.)
From that moment on, and up until today (my son is now 22), I am continually amazed and humbled by the number of things I thought I knew but didn’t. I would never have considered myself a clueless type, but when it comes to parenting, at times, that’s exactly how I’ve felt.
Looking back, I think I learned some useful tips.
Choose your battles. This works all the way up through adulthood. When it comes to dealing with your child, try to play chess instead of checkers. If possible, try to think a few moves ahead. Kids will always be in the moment. You need to stay cool.
Even though your child is made of your DNA, they are not you. Try to achieve a bit of separation. What was right for you isn’t necessarily right for your kid. They have a lot of genes and traits mixed up in there. Think snowflake.
Remember, as a parent, you can often find yourself in an argument with a viable human being whose experience and mental development can be measured in weeks, months, or a scant few years. Reason will not always work. See above.
One of the hardest concepts for infants and up is the notion of transition. They’re doing one thing and you want them to do another. Try this: Don’t snatch something away from your little one. Distract them with something new. Make a trade. As soon as they are able, make rules, a baseline from which to bargain.
It sounds boring, but children respond well to firm routines. That way they know what to expect. (Just like dogs.) Even if you sound totally uncool to your childless friends, your kid should have a firm schedule for eating, naps, play, bedtime, and all the rest. Bend your life to the kid instead of the other way around. It won’t last long, but it will be so much easier.
Always get down on the floor with your kid, eyeball to eyeball.
Tie goes to the child’s needs. They didn’t ask to be born.
I know you’re fighting with your spouse a lot on the subject, but I promise: By the time your kid is in high school, they will sleep through the night and be toilet trained.
When choosing baby advice books, remember the old adage: Opinions are like anal sphincters—everyone has one. The best thing to do is to settle on a course that seems logical and works for you—and then stick to it consistently. However, you should be ready to adjust. Every kid is different. Maybe that’s why there’s no manual included.
A child doesn’t need a sibling to have playmates. Friends, neighbors, cousins, and classmates are just as good—and they can be returned home at some point.
In a two-parent family, having two children means the adults don’t get to spend as much time together because kids end up having different schedules and interests. With one kid, you can either employ a tag team or roll as a threesome. With two kids you must divide and conquer.
Two kids don’t cost the same as one—they cost twice as much, and so on. Not to mention the square footage needs and the price of college tuition.
Remember the above when you’re romanticizing about “trying” one more time for the opposite sex—especially the part about tuition.
From preschool through middle, the classmates and their parents are like faux relatives. You’ll spend more time with them than your own friends and family. After that, not so much. And good riddance.
If you push your kid into school a little early, they’re likely to be the youngest in the class—for their entire school life. Kids sort themselves into pecking order by age and size. Do you want to create a permanent underdog? Or do you want a kid who feels confident? And anyway, what’s the rush? As kids go through school, their levels of physical and emotional maturity become the most important factors in every aspect—in school, learning, development, sports, and social life. Earlier is not better. Is it really so important to hurry up and get done? Remember: The minute they graduate high school, they’re outta there.
Ditto playing “up” in sports. Yes, it’s good to be challenged. But also try to give the kid an experience of playing in their rightful age group so they can experience success. The experience of running at the front of the pack is something you only learn when running at the front of the pack.
If your child doesn’t have access to television, they will not become more educated and noble and politically correct. They’ll instead be a social outcast because they’re not familiar with popular culture. Watching TV isn’t the problem. Managing time is.
The biggest challenge of raising a kid is all the other parents. Try to keep your cool when everyone around you is losing theirs.