Researchers at UCLA have accomplished the near impossible. They tracked and caught on video the real, day-to-day lives of an elusive and enigmatic subject: The American Family
(http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/23/science/23family.html) Near impossible because no one has taken the time and energy to record 24 hours per day, regular families doing regular things in such thorough and minute detail.
While not as entertaining as Jersey Wives or The Apprentice, the miles of video elucidate important trends affecting us all, and paint the best picture to date of who we are as Americans and how our lives are imbalanced and stressed. The families studied were middle class, ethnically varied, straight and gay, had both parents working, and had multiple kids – this is a study that gives us a true snapshot of real America.
Here are a couple of small, but interesting findings that really impact families:
- Moms spend more than a quarter of their day doing housework.
- Dads and co-parents do about half that much, spending 18% of their day on housework.
- Kids do virtually nothing to help around the house, spending only 3% of their day on chores and related household tasks.
The results of this study play out everyday in my office. Moms tell me they’re seriously exhausted. Dads and partners try to co-parent on the fly, and help with housework as needed, but they tend to fall short of doing the heavy lifting because they are also exhausted from working outside the home. Parents – once lovers – eye each other with strained glances, while children fight over coming to the dinner table, avoid their homework, and refuse to chip in with chores.
What to do? Solutions to our most complex problems are sometimes strikingly simple. The trick is to first dig deep and uncover the beliefs and assumptions we hold as truths that trap us. Then, and only then, we can shift our viewpoints and expectations a bit, to live life less frenetically. What are some of our beliefs that get us all tied up in knots and make our home life so stressed?
- If we don’t stay in the game, we’ll fall behind. We’ve got to keep up with everyone else.
- Good parenting is about providing more and doing more. We have to do more to succeed.
- More is better. New and improved is better. The latest is greatest… and we must have it!
It may come as a surprise to many that we most often chose to live the way we do. We’re knee-deep in stress and overwhelmed because we think we have little choice. Certainly, no one wants to face economic hardship, lose opportunities to help their kids succeed, not avail themselves of everything the world has to offer… but that’s different from pushing the limits of what families can tolerate stress-wise.
Here’s what I recommend for American parents under stress, who are doing too much, juggling too many demands, while their kids sit idly by and refuse to help out.
First, shut down all the media. American kids spend upwards of 8 hours a day in front of “screens”, none of which adds to their intelligence. Worse, it can lower school performance, cause social problems, and contribute to medical diseases like obesity. Think of computers, television, cell phones, DVD’s, Ipods, and gaming devices as a pile of sugar sitting in the living room (or worse on your child’s bedroom floor). Ask yourself, is it OK to shovel it in all day? Such media should only be doled out like dessert, in small amounts, provided kids have earned it. School work and helping around the house must come first.
Second, create a clear hierarchy at home. All organizations have leaders. Sports teams, companies, book clubs, classrooms, religious organizations, stores, and restaurants have a boss that sets the tone, the expectations, and everyday delegates what has to get done. Our homes are no different. If your kids are sitting on the couch while you are shoveling the driveway, you aren’t an effective boss. Parents are bosses, not kids. I’m not advocating overly strict and uncompromising parents with unrealistic expectations who drive kids into hyper-achieve mode. I’m advocating clear power at the top, clear expectations, and follow-through. If your children are paid no matter what (that is they get all the goodies – such as TV, computer, cell phones, sports, concerts, money for the mall, etc.), even when they don’t follow through with reasonable expectations and behavior, they’re ripping you off. Expect reasonable efforts and follow through before you hand over rewards.
Third, if you have a spouse, reclaim the relationship that predated kids. Kids are wonderful, but have a way of taking over everything… the house’s resources, living space, your private time… and they also have a way of inserting themselves into the relationship you have with your loving adult mate. Balance the power out in your home. Adults should have more power. Parents should also have personal space and time, and not have to mediate every scratch or minor disappointment, or help on every homework assignment. Kids tend to over-rely on their parents and aren’t above faking incompetence (it gets them out of chores and gets them lots of extra attention). This unnecessary dependence creates an overly kid-centered universe, and one that doesn’t let you nurture your adult needs.
Related to this, stop referring to your spouse only as “mom” or “dad” in front of your kids. Your partner is not your parent. Remind kids that you love one another as adults, and need to spend time alone with each other.
Always check in with each other to resolve parenting issues without your kids watching. This strengthens your parenting when you need to set limits and require follow through. If there are two bosses, they must deliver the same message.
Stop over-using threats and reminders. Your voice is a commodity. Don’t over use it, or it loses its impact. The more you talk and plead and ask, the more likely kids ignore you and won’t follow through. Stay calm and deliver your requests in a controlled boss-like manner, then follow through with consequences, not lectures or anger. If you lose your temper too often, you don’t look powerful. The best leaders stay in control and use actions to back up their words.
Get outdoors. Get some exercise. We weren’t designed to be inside or sit as often as we do in our modern, technology driven society. Sitting for long hours, in fact, has been shown to be medically unadvisable (http://lifestyle.ca.msn.com/health-fitness/news/canadianpress-article.aspx?cp-documentid=23293703). Also, the more we’re stuck inside, with kid’s energies mounting, frustration and conflict increase. Finally, researchers are pointing to the value of daily vigorous movement to balance our emotions through better neurochemistry (http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/2008-02-18-brain-spark_N.htm).
Pare it down and back off. Cut out activities that overload your week. Resist trends that push kids to start building resumes by middle school. Stop believing you must compete with everyone around you. Recognize that young children need free and unstructured playtime, outdoors preferably, and that less adult-supervised hovering allows them a better chance to build their own social skills, confidence, and self-regulation.
Some final thoughts: Am I blaming the victim here? No – all of us, me included, need to be reminded to make healthy choices and good decisions not to let ourselves get caught up in the frenetic pace of American life. The UCLA study I mentioned earlier also tracked cortisol levels (stress hormones). It showed that the stress we experience at home is real, and has serious potential medical effects.
The good news is that we don’t have to be victims. We can control much of what makes us happy or unhappy. Stop and take a minute to think about your life. Acknowledge that the beliefs and expectations that are currently running your life might be running you ragged – and try making a change.