Confessions of an Autopilot Parent

autopilot parenting
source: Thomas Beck

Before I had kids of my own, I had a vision of what kind of parent I’d be. Let me tell you, in my dreams I was some kind of awesome! Fifteen years and four kids, I’ve fallen short of those expectations more times than I care to count. But you know what? That’s okay. I’m human, and if there’s one thing I know, it’s that there’s no perfection in parenting.

Even though I’ve given up on my dreams of being a perfect parent, I still try my best to be a good one. Despite that, I’ve developed a nasty habit of turning my parenting skills on autopilot on a pretty routine basis. Look it up in the dictionary, and you’ll find that being on autopilot is “a cognitive state in which you act without self-awareness.” Uh oh. Sounds awfully familiar.

What is Autopilot Parenting?

Autopilot parenting happens when we go through our days without being fully aware of what’s going on around us and specifically in our interactions with our kids. We set a parenting goal of just surviving the day, rather than striving to be actively engaged with our children. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes we all have days when we do a little victory dance just because we made it to bedtime. But that shouldn’t be how we feel about every day. Instead, more days than not we need to be intentional and aware in our interactions with our children.

My worst autopilot parenting trap is the computer. Email. Blogs. Facebook. Twitter. Pinterest. Pretty easy to tune out the kids with those online distractions to tune in to! My most frequent response to my kids when I’m on the computer is “in a minute.” Most of the time when I say it I don’t even look up to pay attention to what they’ve asked. My response just comes right out of my mouth automatically, to buy me a few more minutes on the computer.

But truthfully, it’s more important to look my kids in the eye, hear their request, and then respond to them appropriately than it is to automatically respond “in a minute.” Take my advice, when I’ve said “in a minute” to my kids on autopilot and without truly listening, I’ve agreed to some pretty ridiculous things. Honestly I once said “in a minute” when my daughter asked for a cookie for breakfast! That was a wake up call for this autopilot mom.

Finding a Cure.

If you think about it, there are probably lots of situations where you find yourself parenting on autopilot. Driving. Cooking. Cleaning. Homework. Bedtime. You name it and as parents we can shift into autopilot so fast we don’t even realize it.

Luckily, it’s just as easy to get out of autopilot as it is to get into it:

First, actively listen to what your children say. When they talk look them in the eye and respond in a way that shows you’re listening. Be eager to engage them in a conversation.

Next, vary up your routines with your kids so that you’re less likely to zone out. Drive a different route. Take a walk around the block. Put away the electronics. Just make it different.

And finally, be on the lookout for autopilot traps. If you have the ability to notice them, then you can come up with a game plan to avoid them.

Do you ever find yourself parenting on autopilot? Share with us. We’d love to hear about some of your traps, and how you manage to get out of them.

Dr. Polly Dunn is a licensed psychologist, specializing in child clinical psychology. As a mom of four, she’s found like you that many of the textbook parenting techniques recommended by professionals are hard to apply in real life. At ChildPsychMom.com her ‘Perfectly Imperfect’ parenting solutions combine expert advice with real world tips to best help you on your parenting journey.
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