David Schramm admits he is selfish. When asked why he conducted a research study on parenting advice and regrets from empty nesters, he says because he wants to be a better parent, and no one has ever done such a study.
“I only get one chance at being a dad, and who better to ask for advice than those who have done it?” he says. “So many parents, like me, want tips and perspective from a generation that has been there. Granted, they may not have had the electronics and some of the challenges we have now, but their advice is still very useful for parents who are right in the thick of it.”
Schramm, a Utah State University Extension family life specialist, father of four children, and assistant professor (a.k.a. “Dr. Dave” on social media and television segments), conducted the study while working as a family life specialist at the University of Missouri. Ashton Chapman, a graduate student there, co-authored their findings that appeared in the academic journal, Family Relations in July 2018.
Schramm says more than 400 empty nest parents were recruited for the survey through social media, professional email listservs, university advertising, newspaper ads in multiple states, and word of mouth. Parents ranged in age from 42 to 81 years, had between one and six children, and had been empty-nesters for 1 to 26 years. The survey consisted of a handful of questions, broken into three age groups: birth to 5 years; 6 to 11 years; and 12 to 18 years, with the two central questions being: 1) Knowing what you know from your experience as a parent, what advice would you give to parents? and 2) If you could go back, what do you wish you could do differently?
“What I didn’t want was for this to be a guilt trip for these parents,” Schramm says. “We all have life regrets, but I didn’t want respondents to feel held hostage by the past. One of my favorite quotes is, ‘You can glance back, but don’t stare!’ We can’t change the past, but we can focus on the good things, what we did well, and what we are glad we did. I believe most parents do the very best they can with what they have and what they know at the time. It’s too late to change the past, but we can learn from it and move forward and do the best with what we know now.”
COMMON THREADS OF ADVICE
Birth to 5 years
Focus first and foremost on relationships with children. Enjoy the moment, engage in active play with children, and exercise patience.
Ages 6 to 11 years
Praise children regularly and promote positive identity development. “Let life happen; don’t plan and push for what you feel your child should do and be,” one parent wrote.
Ages 12 to 18 years
Do more listening than talking; set clear boundaries for behavior; let children make mistakes; and be a parent, not a friend.
Overall recommendations for all ages were: Slow down, enjoy the moment, engage in active play, exercise patience, and enjoy every stage because they all go too fast. Keep the relationship strong so kids will be open and talk with you. Spend quality time with them, love them, be involved in their lives, their activities, their schooling, and know their friends.
One empty-nester summed it up: “Encourage them—be the cheerleader, not the referee. Teach them—model all that is good and responsible. Set a good example—teach responsibility, self-discipline, self-respect, gratitude, compassion, forgiveness and the like by applying it in your own life. You will soon reap what you sowed earlier in their [the children’s] lives.”
COMMON THREADS OF REGRET
Many parents said they regretted being too harsh with their children. Around 25 percent reported regret related to disciplining/getting after their kids. Others regretted not being consistent enough with correction and being too lenient, not having enough rules and not following through. Another 23 percent regretted not teaching their children enough, such as cooking, working with tools, how to manage stress, or not teaching explicitly enough about their faith/values.
The biggest regret, by a whopping 53 percent, related to not spending enough time with them while they were young—not being able to attend school activities, sporting events, and other performances due to work schedules, conflicts, and general life busyness.
DAVE’S ADVICE AND TAKEAWAYS
“We have to realize that people, and especially children, do things for reasons that make sense to them,” Schramm says. “That’s important in parenting. We always ask why. Why did you do that? Why did you hit your sister? Asking why is rarely helpful. We need to put ourselves in their shoes and remember that we were kids once, too, and we made mistakes.”
It’s important to remember that children experience life differently than we do, he says. One example is pain. Their nerve endings are new and they may feel pain more intensely when they are young. Or when they say they’re hungry and they just ate, we have to remember that they experience these things differently than adults because their bodies are smaller. We need to try and see the world from their eyes.
As far as takeaways from the study, Schramm says it is so important to be consistent with consequences of children’s behavior, but not harsh.
“Don’t get carried away in the stressful moments,” he says. “Slow down. Take a few breaths. Take a step back and remember that people are more important than problems. In the heat of the parenting moment, think of the power of threes. Will this matter in three hours? Three months? Three years from now? Occasionally it may be yes, but in the moment, try to step back and be their cheerleader, not their critic. Love them and encourage them. Every child needs at least one person in their life who is wildly crazy about them. Laugh, cry, celebrate with them, and don’t get lost in the stressful times.”
By Julene Reese ’85
To see Schramm’s other research, videos, and tips on family life, visit his Facebook page, DrDaveUSU.