"Pick your battles" is advice I've been given numerous times over the last 15 years of parenting. It's usually when I'm ranting about a child insistent on wearing shorts in winter, or one who is adamant their sandwiches must be cut into various dinosaur shapes.
Given that parenting is a long-distance run with barely a rest stop in sight, I think picking your battles is sage advice. But which battles should we choose?
Jackie Bateman, therapist, consultant and co-author of Working with Children and Teenagers using Solution Focused Approaches, says the battles we lean towards often align with our family's moral compass.
"We need to concentrate on those battles which centre on the essential values, principles and skills that will equip our children to be functional, responsible and respectable adults."
So, what are these?
Manners and empathy
"Research shows that children who learn to take account of others' feelings, perspectives and effectively manage conflict can have a significant bearing on the social and emotional competences as an adult," Ms Bateman says.
In the early days of parenting, teaching manners is a somewhat tedious task. What do you say? and How would you say that nicely? were overused prompts in our house but we stuck out the repetitiveness because we believe behaving politely will take our children far in life. More importantly, fundamental to all the "pleases" and "thankyous" is the core value of empathy. Being considerate of the person you are asking something of, even if that is just a glass of milk, is an important life skill. It shows respect for that person's time, effort, skill or attention. Manners are a simple battle yet so impactful.
Teaching empathy could also extend to broader categories (and battles) of sharing, practicing thoughtfulness and showing gratitude.
Respect and responsibility
Responsible and respectful adults recognise boundaries of behaviour and are accountable for their actions, but those skills don't just appear on their 18th birthday.
Redirecting behaviour that is rude or disrespectful such as back-chatting, swearing or speaking harshly are some of the areas to concentrate on.
In addition, assigning age-appropriate chores is a great way for kids to have responsibility in the household. It also teaches them to respect the space they live in.
Boundaries and consequences
We all know children have to learn self-control and boundaries. They certainly love to push the limits in order to figure out where the fence line is. Consequences for their behaviour teach them that life is about choices and each one has its own penalty or pay-off.
Bedtime is one boundary that is challenged by most children I know. Negotiating more time by sidling out for one more drink / toilet stop / book choice is common. As our children have grown we've been more flexible about their previously strict bedtimes but ensuring they get enough sleep is a non-negotiable. A poorly-rested child plays into so many other challenging areas – behaviour, learning capacity, coping ability, and emotional regulation. Fighting this battle may save you fighting many others.
Setting boundaries is also about teaching children to choose a time, a place and an audience. Silliness and crazy antics, overexcitement that can lead to impulsiveness are all part of life as a kid, and they all have their place. Making fart noises is funny at a friend's house while jumping on the trampoline but probably isn't the best option in the middle of a school assembly. Learning the difference is a sign of maturity.
What battles should we let go?
"As parents it is easy to be consumed by the polarisation of how we want our children to behave and how their behaviours can be," says Ms Bateman.
I had valiant ideas about how my children would and should behave. The reality was quite different and the constant battles were exhausting. We had to let some things slide for family harmony.
The power struggles we've released could fall under the umbrella of "appearance". I've long let go of what other people think and realise that some of my earlier battles with our children fed from the worry about how others viewed me as a parent. I also acknowledged that celebrating individuality and creativity in our kids is important to us as a family.
Anything related to clothing and hair, or say, bedroom tidiness, we've eased back on. Personal hygiene is a must but sporting a matted birds nest in their hair, while wearing gumboots and shorts as it hails is generally overlooked.
Ms Bateman says how we develop discussions around the battles we choose and why we choose them is key. "Modelling behaviours when we are with our children, and in the relationships with others that they observe, is also an important factor."
Picking your parenting battles wisely will help your children grow into functional, responsible and respectable adults while keeping your sanity intact along the way.