Home, which once served as our refuge, is no longer a sanctuary for most of us. We return home to a deluge of mail, bills, telephone messages and chores. Cell phones and email connect us constantly with the outside world, at the same time interrupting our contact with our families. In some homes, the TV is on constantly, blaring news of upsetting events and life and death dramas.
To flourish, we all need a safe place — both physically and emotionally — to come home to. If children are to turn their full attention to the many demands of growing up, they need a secure, solid home where they feel protected. They need to feel we can keep them safe: from the neighborhood bully, from kidnappers, from terrorists.
And no matter how independent they are as they pursue their interests outside the home, kids need to know they can count on the presence of their parents when they get home. Your children would rather be with you than do anything else in the world for a very long time. Even after they start having sleepovers and marathon baseball games, when they come home they want two things: a safe place where they can be fully themselves, and to connect with the rest of the family in a deep, comfortable, and fun way. If your kid seems to live only for screen time, she’s signaling a deeper hunger that needs filling.
Giving your children a sanctuary is an enormous gift. It allows them to go out and do battle in the world, and return home to recharge. It also gives your family culture the cozy nest it needs to thrive. Finally, research shows that adults who consciously create homes where they find nurturance and beauty report better moods and less stressful lives.
So what can you do, in this busy world, to create a sanctuary for your family?
1. Slow down. We all love excitement, but stress kills. Literally. Stress erodes our patience, our ability to give our best to our kids, and our health. Stress makes us fat, frantic and more likely to become furious. If we’re honest with ourselves, we can usually see how we make our lives more stressful than they need to be, simply by being unwilling to make the choice to slow down. If you want your kids to behave better, start by slowing down and not rushing so much.
2. Your children’s home is their sanctuary. That means all household members treat each other respectfully, and no violence, physical or verbal, is tolerated, including between children. Click here for ideas on how to stop your kids from fighting with each other.
3. Try not to over-structure time at home. Home needs to be low-pressure time, not performance time. Of course, all children need to be contributing members of the household. But they also need plenty of time to chill out. Try not to swamp them with too many obligations on top of homework, basic chores, music practice, religious studies, etc. Teenagers, especially, are usually under tremendous stress.
4. Accept your children’s “Baby Self.” You know the Baby Self. It’s that part of your child that emerges in the form of regression when your child has been coping with lots of “grown-up” demands. All day they work hard to hold it together at preschool. When you show up, you evoke the baby self simply by being their parent. They fall apart. They whine, or at least act a bit childish.
Should you reprimand them, demand appropriate behavior? Usually it works better if you don’t. All kids need a chance to be their baby self, and the younger they are, the more time the baby self needs to be “out”. If you let your child be “little” when they need to be (cozy times, bedtime, when they are tired) you reduce the chance they’ll disintegrate at inappropriate times (dinner with Grandma, in line at the supermarket.)
My advice is to allow young children to indulge their “Baby Selves” at home when possible. You can expect tantrums or tears or whining after a long day at preschool, or after that first sleepover, or after the school play she worked so hard on, or simply on Friday afternoon after a pressured week. All children have to work hard to perform a high percentage of the time, from sitting still at school to negotiating with friends to picking off that runner at first base. They all need a chance to let the “Baby Self” emerge without being ridiculed.
And while it sometimes seems as if they’ll be babies forever, their Baby Selves will disappear sooner than you can imagine, along with your car keys.
5. Provide enough structure so that children’s routines run predictably. Kids need to know what to expect. Imagine yourself sitting working on a project when your spouse unexpectedly tells you it’s time for a visit to the inlaws. Children often feel like they have little control over their lives; exacerbating that by springing schedule changes on them invariably creates resistance. Structure also keeps things more organized, eliminating the stress of constant last-minute searches for things. Click here for more oncreating family routines and structure.
6. Limit Technology. Set a good example by turning off your computer and cell phone to spend the evening with your family. Make it a family rule that Saturdays are technology-free. Worried about how you’ll cope? That’s a sure sign that your household needs to schedule in a regular tech-free day. Try it as an experiment. You might all feel awkward as you start bumping up against each other — “Hey, you live here?” — but the connectedness will blow you away, and you won’t go back.
7. Be aware of the impact of sound. One oncologist I know has peaceful music, or waterfalls, in every room of his house. He cites numerous studies proving that peaceful sounds offers nourishment to the immune system as well as the soul.
The other end of this continuum, of course, is loud TV, upsetting news, and blaring traffic. For more info on TV and news, please see Protective Parenting,Your Preschooler or Toddler & TV, and Why TV Undermines Academics. Regarding traffic, you might find it interesting that seeing eye dogs who live in cities have shorter lives because of the noise stress. Anything you can do to minimize traffic sounds will protect your family physically and emotionally.
8. Create a supportive family culture. Click here for Eight ways every parent can create a Family Identity and Culture that holds their family together through thick and thin.
Written by Dr. Laura Markham