Parents, Remember — You’re Playing the Longest Game

Jersey City, New Jersey, USA --- Black family relaxing on sofa together --- Image by © JGI/Jamie Grill/Blend Images/Corbis

The way our brains as parents. we are wired means that we’re short term by nature. Rapidly responding to the immediate, slogging away to delay gratification.

But our job as parents is the longest game — to raise a little person to become the best big person they can be. Yet we fall into the trap of focusing on the moment and measuring ourselves against that. We default to the day-to-day evaluation of progress, at every stage of their development. In the early years, we compare our child to their peers ‘their child is walking/talking/weaning, ours isn’t, what’s wrong?’. In early school years, it’s academic achievement, we sweat things like homework when the evidence says it doesn’t matter for later academic achievement. It could, in fact, be harmful.

The job is really about laying the right, solid foundations, so strong and so deep that they can’t be broken. The things that equip our little ones today to be brilliant big ones in the future and enjoy the journey as they grow.

Laying foundations starts early.

One study tracked children for over three years, from when they were 20 months old. It looked at mums who attached meaning and feelings to children’s actions and spoke about it to their kids. Things like ‘Charlie’s sad because he wants to play with the dinosaur but it’s not here’ when the child was upset.

When the kids reached five, researchers put on a puppet show to test the children’s ability to read emotions in others. In the show, kids watched Charlie the Crocodile empty a milk cartoon and refill it with soda pop. Next, Penny the Penguin — who didn’t witness the act — came along.

The researchers told kids that Penny likes milk, not soda pop. Then they asked kids to predict how Penny would feel when she first saw the cartoon. Would she be happy or sad? And how would she feel after she looked inside the cartoon and found that there was soda pop, not milk, inside?

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The kids who correctly predicted Penny’s feelings (that she’d be happy at first, and then disappointed) were the ones whose mums had attached meaning and feelings to children’s actions and spoke about it to their kids when they were toddlers(called mind-mindedness academically).

That’s a three-year investment of effort right there, without any feedback. And when the feedback comes we don’t notice it because it’s a steady shift in the state, not a lightning bolt change. Yet understanding emotions, our own and other peoples’ is one of those foundational pieces to being a brilliant adult. So when they start to, our parents should be celebrating.

This focus on the long term, going years without feedback is getting harder and harder to do. Our world’s one obsessed with instant feedback, on-demand everything, minimal viable products and propositions, everything focused on feedback and iterate.

To do our job best means ignoring all this. It means taking pleasure in the act. In the moments of connection and not worrying about what’s being achieved. It’s incredibly simple yet devilishly hard to do. Love and connect to them in every moment you can, be patient, marvel in and celebrate the people they become at every step of the way.

It’s all about love.

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