Be it another piece of cake or binging on an entire season of your favourite show, willpower is not an easy thing to master. Indulgence lurks around every corner, cute cat videos are a click away, and when you’re a parent you have it especially rough because on top of all the delicious distractions there’s a tiny human looking up to you and expecting some sort of wisdom. So how do parents do it?
Love, patience and willpower – might be what most would say, and it’s definitely not far off. Researchers use terms like self-control, self-regulation or ego depletion, but the underlying assumption is the same. There’s a finite amount of energy at our disposal and, as laws of physics will have it, if you use it you tend to run out of energy throughout the day.
The same goes for children. Moreover, they still depend on external control, basically mom or dad telling them to put the phone away or stop munching on snacks before dinner is served. I’m sure each and every parent knows this, at the end of a particularly taxing day incidents tend to happen because both your younglings and you are at the bottom of your inner pool of strength and nobody is their best version.
In layman’s terms – we get tired, but not just tired like you do after climbing a flight of stairs. There’s a particular strain to navigating throughout a day, making decisions big and small. It differs from typical exhaustion and knowing both types can help you avoid the most common pitfalls.
And you might think, if my patience is running on metaphorical fuel, maybe don’t use the capacity so often, leave the tank full? Next time your child wants to eat another piece of cake, maybe just let them, avoid an argument and save that energy for later? Sadly, as researchers found out, this is not the case, but the cake analogy is not completely wasted.
While self-indulgence won’t lead to overall greater self-control, glucose does play a part in preventing meltdowns. Here’s another parenting reality, when a child’s overall energy levels are down there’s not a lot of space for words and rationality.
Don’t tell the kids, but adults are not immune either! Beware of low blood sugar and long days because this insidious combination might make you a flawed partner, make you say or do things you’ll definitely have to apologise for later on. You might find you’re less open to compromise, more prone to sticking to irrational biases and more likely to blame your partner for any type of shortcoming.
All of us start out completely dependent on others. Parents are there to regulate their children’s behaviour, then gradually let go (easier said than done!) and hopefully, with time, patience and trust, the ratio changes throughout your life. So what to do in the meantime?
First of all, balance is key! Pick your battles – sometimes it’s the kids having a meltdown, but sometimes it’s going to be you. You’re human, too, so don’t forget to be kind to your partner and/or yourself!
Then, if possible, plan your activities around the overall energy levels of your family. Leave some wiggle room on particularly pesky days, don’t expect too much and remember, whatever the issue – it’ll pass (take a look at point one).
Lastly, even though there is little room for rationality when everyone is already at the end of their tether, there is some wiggle room. As research with athletes unearthed, when they’re a step away from the finish line, no matter the exhaustion, people tend to recuperate and find energy for that last one push. So plead carefully, chose wisely and don’t abuse your power!