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Second Shift

Here's How "Metric Parenting" Can Help Relieve Working-Parent Guilt

We track our fitness goals, nutritional intake, and spending, but few of us track our parenting activities in quite the same way.

Here's How "Metric Parenting" Can Help Relieve Working-Parent Guilt
[Photo: Flickr user Tiago Lima]

Earlier this year, Canada’s Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna announced that she'd be leaving the office every day except Thursdays at exactly 5:30 p.m. It was an unprecedented move for a senior public figure, but McKenna went further still: She said she'd be offline until 8 p.m. in order to help her kids (ages 7, 9, and 11) with their homework and eat dinner with her family. After that point, she'd check back in remotely.

"I am not going to be a good minister unless I’m happy at home and my family’s happy and there’s some balance," she said.

What "Metric Parenters" Do Differently

There are several important lessons about work-life balance in McKenna's decision, but one of them involves what I've called "metric parenting"—a way of using the same tactics to meet goals and deadlines at work in order to get more of what you want in your family life. Doing that well can help alleviate some of the guilt that can come with being a busy working parent.

While interviewing more than 500 parents for my second book (full disclosure: Catherine McKenna was one of those parents), I noticed many were doing something peculiar: Without always realizing it, the working parents I spoke to were deliberately setting goals like "being more present" or "cultivating my child’s curiosity" and turning them into tangible objectives they could work toward achieving. They regularly scheduled time to review their progress, and many of the parents with two or more children even had some way or another of tracking their engagement with each child.

What's more, I found that over the five years I followed my interview group, the subset of "metric parenters" (as I’d come to think of them) seemed to report feeling happier with the ways they were balancing their families with their work. Interestingly, almost all were doing this unconsciously: They were simply taking what they knew to work in their professional lives and applying it in their personal lives.

It may sound like overkill, but if you're already a successful professional, why not take the skills you've developed at work and put them to good use at home, too? Here’s are a few tips to help you apply the principles of metric parenting in your own life.

1. Define Your Goals

Just as you'd define what success looks like on the business, financial, or professional fronts, articulate what "being a good parent" means or looks like to you—at this point in your life and in your child’s, knowing that might shift over time.

Even easier, start with your parenting pain points: Maybe you feel like you're on your phone too much during family time, or you wish you were more available for class trips. Whatever it is, get clear on what you’d like to change, or what you'd like to have more of.

Then actually write these goals down. If it isn't documented somewhere, you're less likely to follow through. And if you have more than one child, it can be helpful to segment out your targets by each child.

2. Break It Down Into Actions

According to recent Pew research, many working parents feel they aren't doing well enough when it comes to their families.

Metric parenting can be a good antidote. Once you've established your parenting goals, brainstorm three to four tactics or actions you could take toward each one. What would make you feel like you're accomplishing those goals? Then schedule them in. McKenna, for instance, is scheduling four evenings at home with no online access for two hours.

Now schedule a time to regularly check in and reflect on your progress. One of the parents I interviewed, a lawyer with four kids, has a standing quarterly appointment with herself: She goes to a coffee shop for an hour and reflects on her relationship and goals with each of her children.

3. Record It

We track our fitness goals, nutritional intake, and spending, but few of us track our parenting activities in quite the same way.

I’ve written before about how "got-done" lists can trump "to-do" lists when it comes to reaching your tasks, because it shifts the focus onto your achievements rather than your intentions. Metric parenting follows the same principle. If you have the data to assess where you actually stand, you can better sort out what you want to achieve next, whether that's reasonable, and how to go about it.

Nor does it have to be an elaborate system. As long as you're keeping up with it regularly, you'll have enough data to stay on track. Several of my interviewees sent emails to themselves as a way to quickly capture data.

The important thing to remember is that it isn't about recording all your frenetic parenting activity. It's about capturing moments, so you can have more of the ones that matter—for instance, when you listened really patiently or had a genuine emotional connection with your child.

One upside to tracking your progress is that we often realize we're doing more than we thought. We just tend to overlook what we're succeeding at and focus instead on what we think we aren't doing or need to do better.

4. Celebrate Wins

In the groundbreaking cognitive behavioral therapy book Feeling Good, Dr. David Burns explains how our moods and mind-sets result from the way we respond to situations and events. We often disqualify the positive by telling ourselves it isn't enough, or else we minimize our own successes against our perceptions of someone else’s.

This is especially true when it comes to parenting. So reward yourself when you meet your targets; metric parenting is an investment in setting yourself up for future success. Remember that setbacks are inevitable and that, as research has shown, small wins still matter.

Kate Hilton, the best-belling author of The Hole in the Middle and mother of two, put it to me this way:

It's easy in parenting to focus on all of the ways in which we fall short. But I try hard to remember that parenting is a marathon and not a sprint. We won't feel successful at it every day. I try to tackle one issue at a time, over a longer period of time. Over the course of an academic term, for example, I can make progress on a larger issue such as study habits, or eating a greater variety of foods, or reducing screen time.

I make a point of celebrating these wins with my children, of course—there are special dinners out and new toys for them. But I also try to celebrate my own parenting successes by taking the time to recognize the achievements and to congratulate myself for them (often with a glass of wine).

Instead of feeling guilty, you may find yourself feeling accomplished. And you'll have the metrics to back it up.

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