"You'll be late everywhere after you have kids, so just be prepared."
I heard this so much while pregnant with my first child that I would just nod, rather than explain that I am allergic to tardiness. The running joke after I received my first car was that if I wasn't 15 minutes early, I was dead.
Four kids later and this hasn't changed. My punctuality is sometimes an embarrassment, and I have never known how to make a cool entrance fashionably behind schedule. Watching the clock tick down to the exact moment we need to leave always causes me to decide that maybe five minutes earlier might be a good idea. Never mind that I was already leaving ten minutes earlier than needed.
This habit comes from anxiety over rushing and fear of being judged by others as inconsiderate. Though I didn't think it would be the worst thing in the world for my kids to learn to be prompt, a recent experience that left us in two traffic jams and 14 minutes late – a horrifying first for all of us – proved me wrong. I now realize it's not just time management I'm teaching them. It's the fear of not being in control, the true root of my eternally early arrivals.
Fears and anxiety don't come from nowhere
It's no secret that parents pass their fears down to their children, and a study also showed that kids with parents who suffer from anxiety are more likely to suffer from it themselves.
Even without the science, I'm living proof of this. Claustrophobic since childhood, I've now been stuck in an elevator with my children twice. Both times I was the one throwing the biggest fit and fighting the urge to pass out. Two of my children quickly picked up the habit and now sometimes have to be physically hauled onto elevators.
John McGrail, a clinical hypnotherapist who was interviewed by the Chicago Tribune, says that's because "all early learning is based upon the process of association and identification." Kids figure out what parents are scared of and make a brain connection, and all the things they've learned to fear are stored. He stresses that children are especially prone to soaking up fears the first eight years of life.
That's a ton of responsibility for parents – fallible humans that we are – who have our own experiences and also carry hardwired fears in our brains. However, we can help ourselves and our kids by following a five-step process that acknowledges their fear and takes some of its power away.
1 | Acknowledge the fear
As we hit the second traffic jam in our already extended drive, I told my daughter we might be late to gymnastics. In fact, depending on how long we were sitting in traffic, we might not even make it. She was upset, and my other three kids were sick of being in the car. However, my daughter quickly acknowledged she was scared to be late because, "that's just not something we do." Her mother's child, obviously.
Her acknowledgement opened us up to the next step.
2 | Affirmation
I told her I also felt sick to my stomach when we were running late. We just put it out there instead of pretending this is something that does not make us all nauseous. I told her it was okay to want to be on time, but we could let the fear go because this was not something we could control. I told her that life reminds people who often fear being out of control that they never were in control in the first place.
3 | Come up with a plan
At this point we made decisions. We decided that if we were more than 15 minutes late for class, it wouldn't be worth going. We'd turn around and cut our losses. If we could make it within that 15-minute window for lateness, we'd move forward and she'd go to class.
4 | Be the example
Decision made, we continued to sit in traffic, also known as "the hard part." I wanted to tap the steering wheel or mumble comments about leaving on time, but I knew I couldn't. The plan was set, we'd addressed the fear, and what I did from that point on would prove if I did or didn't believe in this method. So I waited. Exactly 14 minutes late, we pulled into the parking lot at gymnastics.
5 | Repeat
Identifying our own fears and teaching our kids to do the same is a process that never ends. It requires a constant awareness of our own behaviors and responses. Like almost everything related to parenting, it's hard. The payoff to our kids can be a life lived with less fear and plenty of coping skills for when life goes off course.