by Sara Erling (with Lori Riggs)
I am often asked by fellow NACD moms, “How do you do it?” “How do you get it all done?” “Why do you have your kids involved in so many activities?” The easy answer is to say that I am a little crazy. (But I’m really not.) I think it comes down to our different, unique personalities, and how that impacts our approach to life and schedules. I have always been passionate about human behavior, even to the point of getting a degree in psychology. Recently as I have been thinking and reading more and more about different personalities and personality traits, I had an “aha” moment. I have always known that I am more of an extrovert. I am loud and get excited easily. I have a lot of energy (just not past 9 pm, when I turn into a pumpkin). My intensity level is generally always at a “10.” But you don’t have to be an extrovert to “get it all done.” Introverts have their own unique gifts and can often be even more productive. Where I am going with all this is that if we as moms and dads can identify how our personalities work, and then from there develop a plan for what we need in order to be more productive with our kids, ultimately we can be more effective parents. In this article I hope to provide you with some input on how to do just that.
Carl Jung, who popularized the terms “extroverts” and “introverts,” believed that we each have some characteristics of both, just that one is generally more dominant. Extroverts, in general, have an intense need for stimulation. (I can enjoy a weekend in Las Vegas.) Extroverts tend to be more outgoing, like a high level of activity, are perhaps more aggressive, and generally are able to make quick decisions. Introverts, on the other hand, function better with less external stimulation, tend to be more contemplative, perhaps reserved, and may have more of a careful balancing of considerations before reaching decisions. Susan Cain, author of Quiet, researched introversion as a personality trait and discovered that while some see it as a weakness, it is actually a strength. In a NY Times interview in 2012, she said, “There are many different definitions that psychologists use [in defining introversion]. One that many would agree with – and that I like – is ‘people who prefer quieter, more minimally stimulating environments.’ The key is about stimulation: Extroverts feel at their best with and crave a high degree of stimulation. For introverts the optimal zone is much lower.”
So here is my life as an extrovert: I have three kids. I have worked for NACD for over 16 years, starting before I was a mother. When kids came along I was neither able nor willing to completely give up my career. My husband and I rely on my income, and I love working for such an amazing organization. Fortunately, I work for a company who believes that mothers and fathers should play an active role in their child’s development. Over the past 11.5 years, Bob has let me change roles, stop traveling, or increase my traveling, take my babies with me to different locations while I was still nursing them, etc. In turn, my babies have been videotaped many times, (three of my babies are who you see in the program videos), they have been guinea pigs, and they have each been on program since they were born. They still do program. I am able leave at 3:00 every day in order to be at home with my kids. (For those of you who work and are also trying to fit things in, I encourage you to talk to your boss. Is it possible to come in later in order to work with your child and then stay later, or vice versa? Is it possible to telecommute or do some work from home? More often, employers are letting moms and dads have a bit more flexibility, which in turn creates happier employees. Happy employees can also be more productive employees.)
Jump ahead 11 years, and here I am… a full-time working mom to three kids: Michael is 11, Marc is 9 (almost 10), and Elle is 5. I travel for work most months, and my husband also travels with his job as a golf coach for Weber State University. The kids each have their own activities – Michael does competitive soccer year round, basketball during the winter, Boy Scouts each week, and golf (a must in our family!). Marc plays the seasonal sports – football in fall, wrestling and basketball in winter, baseball in spring, and golf in summer, and is also in Boy Scouts. Elle is in ballet year round and plays soccer in the fall and spring. Plus they have school and, of course, their NACD programs.
I give you this background so that you know just how much stuff I have to schedule. So how do I do it and not go crazy? First, I recognize that I am an extrovert. I crave constant stimulation. Even on the weekends when the house is clean and the laundry is done, I can’t just sit. I have to be doing something. I thrive on having a busy life. So I recognize that this is just a part of who I am. Also, I should qualify all of this by pointing out that 1) my kids are neuro-typical (they don’t have special needs) 2) they are all three in school now and 3) I have family locally and within a couple of hours away. I do understand that those things make it easier for me to do all that I do compared to some of you readers. But let me provide you with some things that are always “MUST DOs” (besides an admitted reliance on morning caffeine) during my weeks in order to keep up with all the activity:
- First and most important, I SLEEP. I go to bed religiously by 10. Only occasionally do I stay up late. It is not uncommon on the weekends for me to be in bed before that! I love my sleep. I need at least 8 hours a night. I sleep well and when I wake up I am ready to face the day.
- I also make sure that I EXERCISE most days of the week. I am a runner and I love to run. I don’t have to run an hour each day – most of the time it is only 30 minutes, but I run. I make sure that I do it. Michael is old enough to watch Elle at home while I run around the neighborhood for 30 minutes. When the kids were younger, I remember running with them in the jogger strollers. I would run to a park, let them play and work on their physical program activities there or do some program there, then I would put them back in and run back.
- I stay conscious of my family’s HEALTH, aside from just the exercise. I watch our diets. I have been also experimenting more with our essential oils from Young Living, and I am really enjoying the citrus and “Joy” essential oils. I apply them topically and through our diffuser at home in the morning and in the evening.
- Monday through Friday we have a VERY CONSISTENT SCHEDULE. I think that it is important to be consistent, as that helps the kids predict and know what we expect to have happen. In the mornings, the kids wake themselves up with their alarms, and they have a morning routine that they have to follow. And they know what needs to happen on that day of the week. (For those of you who have one or two kids who need more assistance from you, be sure that the ones who don’t are taking full responsibility for what they need to do. If you have to remind everyone to do this or that, you end up spending a lot of time nagging; and ultimately they don’t learn how to be responsible.
- Each of the kids has their own CHECKLIST of what they need to do in the morning before 8:00. That includes making their own breakfast, which requires that I have things available to them that are easy to make and nutritious. If they don’t get done with their list by 8, then they lose screen time for the day. In the mornings, the boys and Elle will also try to get in a bit of their programs. One of the boys might be able to do a Simply Smarter session, while the other one reads or vice versa. I do sequencing with Elle while I do her hair. Or I will review her sight words for a one-minute duration while she is eating. They keep their school folders on our island in the kitchen so that while they are eating breakfast or before school, and of course after, they can have them to review what they need to complete or study or homework. While they are getting ready for the day, so am I. My husband takes care of the bed and lets the dog out. He makes the coffee, etc., while I am getting ready. We work together to get out of the house and on who will pick up whom from what activity. We are a well-oiled machine! The big thing to remember here is time management. I am trying to teach that to my children. If they can learn to manage their time well, then they will learn that they can have much more free time.
- I MULTI-TASK. I often work while waiting for practices or games. When the kids were younger, I would often take advantage of mealtime. Breakfast and dinner, two frequencies of picture cards or language photos or word cards – done!
- I FOCUS MY TIME. Yes, sometimes I multitask. But other times I stay very focused on one thing. From 8:30 to 3 it is all about work. I am at the office, working on work. From 3:30 to 5 pm I am with my kids. They are doing the rest of their programs and their homework with me present. We don’t turn on the TV or play with friends or go anywhere until it is done. I don’t engage in social media or talk on the phone. I try to rotate–I spend 15 minutes working with one, then while they do something independent, I work with the other one, then on to the third child. Some days I have to spend more time working with one child over another. If I have one child who needs a lot of my time on a particular day, then I have the other child work with Elle.
- I do SIMPLY SMARTER– I try to do it first thing before I do anything else. Even if I do it three times a week, that helps me to keep my focus and multi-tasking abilities up.
- The KIDS HELP. The kids each have their areas of the house that they maintain, as do my husband and I. Their area should take them a maximum of 15 minutes to do. They have the same areas because for them it works better. They know what to do and how to do it. I have worked with families who have a constant rotation of chores. While that works great for some, for us, that doesn’t work well. The older two also have their own separate laundry days. They are responsible to do their own loads and hang them all up. The kids all work together to empty the dishwasher daily and clean up after our dog. Elle helps me with our laundry, and I am always teaching her to do more things on her own.
- Generally from 5:00-7:00 we are doing sports activities. I TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THE HELP I HAVE. My mom takes care of Elle in the afternoons, as she is retired and Elle only has Kindergarten half days. She reads with Elle, does some program and school type activities with her, and just has fun. She takes her to ballet class and sometimes brings her home to me. I ASK for help! Michael has several close soccer teammates that we carpool with to and from practices and games each week. Many of their activities are very close to where we live. When I travel, my mother-in-law generally comes and stays with Scott and the kids, and I have a very specific plan for each day of the week. I work with many families who have help available. Many of you need help with your kids to increase their neurodevelopmental function. Don’t be afraid to ask for it!
- I CANNOT GO WITHOUT MY SMART PHONE! I answer emails while waiting during practices or games. I am often talking to a parent while waiting as well. Or, I’ll admit, my phone may keep Elle entertained while we wait for one of her brothers.
- I PLAN OUR MEALS WEEKLY. On the weekends I plan meals, do my grocery shopping, get gas, and run errands so that during the week our days are not interrupted. On days when there are games or something that I need to attend between 5-7, that is a crockpot day. I am a firm believer in making it simple. I know that many of you have children that are on special diets and that take up much more cooking time than what I need to do for my family. I just encourage that you separate your day into finding time to do that cooking. Plan it out ahead of time.
- I view our FAMILY SCHEDULE AS SACRED. I really try to not let anything interfere with it. Call me neurotic. I know how much time something should really take. Making my daily breakfast should take 5 minutes, not an hour. Doing Simply Smarter should only take 20 minutes. Making dinner should take less than 30. If things are taking too long, I am always asking myself why? What is getting me distracted? Am I checking Facebook too much? Is the TV on when it doesn’t need to be? Am I spending too much time talking on the phone when my kids deserve more of that time? I am constantly evaluating where my time goes and working harder and harder to make the best of it. And I make sure we always have dinner together.
That’s what works for me and my family. But what if you are an introvert? Would this drive you up the wall? I recently read an article called, “Self-Care for the Highly Sensitive Parent,” by Anne Bogel of Modern Mrs. Darcy. A homeschool mom and blogger, Mrs. Bogel talked about Susan Cain’s book, and while she knew she was more of an introvert, she also discovered that she was a “highly sensitive parent.” According to Susan Cain’s book, “A highly sensitive person is someone who’s more sensitive to physical and/or emotional stimuli than the general population. They have sensitive nervous systems, are more attuned to subtleties in their surrounding, and are more easily overwhelmed by highly stimulating environments. Interacting with people drains introverts; sensory input drains highly sensitive people. HSPs are more likely to be introverts, but about 30% of HSPs are extroverts.” Ms. Bogel talked about how she was a highly sensitive person to the “core” and that homeschooling 4 children ages 4-11 was a very highly stimulating environment. However, by understanding her personality and knowing more about it, she created a cheat sheet in the hopes that it would benefit other HSP parents. Ms. Bogel talked about needing to make her energy last through the homeschool day. Here were her suggestions:
- “START THE DAY RIGHT. It is very important for HSPs to have a calm start to their days. Put yourself to bed on time so you can wake before the kids, have a cup of coffee by yourself, and do whatever you do to ready yourself for the day in peace.
- EMBRACE ROUTINE. Smooth routines means fewer decisions, which tax your mental energy. Consistent routines also mean less talking, which zaps the HSP’s energy when engaged in nonstop during an 8-hour school day. Make checklists so you don’t have to remind the kids to make their beds, brush their teeth, or start their math. Streamline snack time. Put a daily schedule in place, and stick to it.” (Sound familiar?)
- “OUTSOURCE THE TALKING. I love reading aloud to my kids, but talking all day drains every drop of my energy. Let audiobooks do some of the work for you.
- ENFORCE QUIET TIMES. HSPs need some noise-free zones in their day. At our house, we have book basket time: 30 minutes of silent reading time to let everyone rest and recharge and learn something. We also have a daily rest time at our house. Everyone – including me – spends two hours alone (well, mostly alone) every afternoon. The kids can read, play quietly, listen to music or audiobooks, and watch the occasional movie – as long as they do it by themselves.
- CONTROL THE CLUTTER. Messy spaces are draining for many HSPs because there’s too much visual input. Although I would never describe myself as a neatnik, I’ve noticed that keeping my house tidy keeps my metaphorical fuel tank full. Clear kitchen counters do a lot for inner calm.
- LIMIT THE AMOUNT OF INFORMATION YOU’RE TAKING IN DURING THE SCHOOL DAY. As a general rule, I don’t check email, Twitter, or Facebook during our school days. HSPs are more likely to find a homeschool day exhausting because of the sheer amount of info coming in from all directions. The last thing my brain needs is additional stimulation via email or social media.
- BE DELIBERATE ABOUT HOW YOU REST AND RECHARGE. Build some downtime into your day, and be deliberate about how you use it. When you need to re-charge, make sure to do something that actually fills your tank. As much as I love catching up on the phone with a friend, that’s not the best way for me to recharge after a loud and busy homeschool morning. I’m much better off with a cup of coffee and a good book. “
While this all sounds right, since I am an admitted extrovert, I’ll bring in my introverted colleague, Lori, to comment:
I am the poster child for Susan Cain’s description of introverts. I generally have a rather slow pace in life (perhaps it’s related to being a native Texan; but I think it’s just my nature). I would rather ski cross-country than downhill. I’d love a sports car, but I’d like to take it for a nice, leisurely drive through the countryside. (And unlike Sara, I truly dislike Las Vegas.) I’d rather pay more and shop on the day before Thanksgiving than fight the mobs on Black Friday. Less is more when it comes to external stimulation. I rarely think to turn on the TV, and definitely do only if I am going to sit down and watch something specific. I don’t like distractions or chaos or noise. I don’t speak in groups, but enjoy quiet conversation one-on-one. I always knew I wanted two children, as I was aware that my nature was such that there was only that much of me to go around, and more than that might produce a household that felt chaotic. The Sara-types might find my lifestyle boring, while I would find the lifestyle of the Sara-types semi-un-livable.
Aside from personality differences, Sara and I have some other differences as well. I am a single mom, and my family members all live in Texas, while I am in Utah. So when it comes to being taxi-driver, working mom, maintainer of car and house, cook, and coffee-maker, I live by those ten 2-letter words: If it is to be it is up to me. So although I have one less child than she does, and my kids have fewer activities than hers do, there is a lot to pack into a day. I think Anne Bogel’s list is great. And I think Sara’s list is perfect…for her. As for me, here’s my take on how I get it done:
- I am a list-maker. Grocery lists, to-do lists, don’t-forget lists. Anything I need to organize and keep track of, I write down—mostly to keep from forgetting things, but also because it’s so satisfying to check things off as they are completed.
- I am more than willing to go without my smart phone. I do not wish to be available to all people at all times. And while there may be an app for that, sometimes I find it more convenient, efficient, and useful to do things the old fashioned way. I have a 9:00 rule, and I stick by it: Don’t call or text before 9 am or after 9 pm. (I think that rule was made up in the Olden Days of telephones and then forgotten in the days of absent-cell-phone-etiquette.)
- I don’t multi-task. I like to give my full attention to whatever it is I am doing. And I don’t feel like I can do that if I’m doing more than one thing at a time. Even washing dishes and cleaning house can turn into a meditation if I do it with enough thought and intention and attention.
- I limit my kids’ activities. I started with the rule that each child could choose one activity outside of school. But they ended up liking the same things and doing them together, so that’s turned into both of them being involved in martial arts as well as music lessons. I have no concept of how I would manage it if I had one in basketball and football and soccer and one in baseball and marching band and karate. Or cheer and dance and…. It’s not that I’m against any of those things. My nature is just such that I can’t imagine running around to all of those things and surviving it.
- I take care of myself. With a history of adrenal stress, I wouldn’t call myself a high-energy person. I have to be very conscious of health and make sure I’m doing everything I can to optimize it. After all, with those ten 2-letter words looming in my head, I don’t have time to be sick or even generally unhealthy. And I figure that all the lectures in the world on nutrition, sleep hygiene, and exercise won’t have nearly the impact on my children that modeling those things with a healthy lifestyle will have.
- I live in the moment…and plan, plan, plan! I understand that each moment and each stage of my kids’ lives is fleeting. I truly strive to appreciate each stage they go through and commit the details to memory. I like to listen when my kids are talking and let them know they have my attention. I like to taste the food that I’m eating, not grab a meal on the run. At the same time, I’m always planning ahead so that I’m ready for what comes next (which brings us back to lists). It makes me think of a Peanuts cartoon on the side of a glass I drank out of when I was a kid, where Lucy says, “There’s no excuse for not being properly prepared.” So that we can eat healthy, real food every day—at the end of a work day—I plan ahead for the week, including knowing what I need to do the night before to prep for the next day’s dinner, and having all ingredients on hand to avoid any last minute store runs. I plan my budget and stick to it. I plan the summer out months ahead so that I know how I will keep my kids busy during my work hours and when we’ll fit in the annual Texas trek. I make plans, and I stick to them.
- I cut myself some slack…frequently. I can’t plan for kids getting sick, the car breaking down, or an unexpected ice storm. And sometimes for no reason at all, I just don’t feel like carrying through with what was on The List that day. Instead, sometimes I need to scrap The List and wrap up in a blanket and hang out while my kids show me their finely honed video game skills. And I need to know that’s just okay.
Some ways that I approach my schedule are just like Sara’s. Some appear to be in direct opposition, which only illustrates the differences in people and personality types. This isn’t a how-to article; it’s a this-is-what-works-for-me article. With our differences, our uniqueness, our own little personality eccentricities, it can’t be a one-size-fits-all life. And who wants it to be? Our differences can be what draw us together. Perhaps that is why Sara and I work together so well and can be such great friends. Find your strengths. Improve your weaknesses. Know who you are and what works for you. And sometimes just wrap up in a blanket and don’t worry about it.
While we might have different personality traits and one might be more dominant than the other – there were some definite overlaps. Schedule, be consistent, schedule time for you, and eliminate those things that distract you. As parents, we all want to help our kids be successful. Even though our kids’ needs may be very different, these tools can be used by all parents to keep our sanity and have more productive days than not. We all have unproductive, blah days; and when those happen, I just eat chocolate and go to bed. There is always tomorrow. Let’s make 2015 a much more productive year.