15 Unhelpful Things Well-Meaning Parents Do

By Angelica Shiels Psy.D.

So, as I was writing this article, I quickly realized that I am guilty of doing almost all of the things on this list.  Upon reaching this conclusion, for a split second, I was all:  

And then I thought about it and I was like…

And it was all good.

So, here’s what I came up with:

1)  Doing anything for our kids that they can do themselves.  Yes, it takes longer to get out the door if I  remind my two-year old to clear his own breakfast dish instead of quickly doing it myself, or if I wait for my three-year old to  figure out a way to get his heel into his velcro shoes.  Yes, it requires patience from the customer behind me to wait for my five-year old to repeat, “strawberry smoothie please” three times until it is finally loud enough for the cashier to hear it.  BUT if I don’t allow my kids to do these things on their own, I’m robbing them of  opportunities to build up their sense responsibility, self-accomplishment and confidence.

2)  Giving Them More Chances.  When I end up counting to “ten” after I have insisted that they “have until the count of three,” I completely undermine my own authority.  How the heck are they ever going to take me seriously again if I give them the impression that they get unlimited chances to follow directions?

3)  Giving in.  Despite their adorably sympathetic puppy-dog eyes and convincing arguments (but we didn’t have any candy yesterday, so we should get two pieces today!), once a parent has said something, it should be set in stone.  This is something I struggle with a lot (especially when it comes to their convincing arguments that actually make sense to me!), so I challenge myself to think VERY hard before I say “no,” so that I am prepared to stand behind it no matter what.

4)  Giving them vague and dramatic compliments.  Telling my special little snowflakes that they are “so smart” and “wonderful” all the time will eventually backfire on me.  One day there will be a time when they find something academically challenging or do something not-so-wonderful, and they will experience a painful and confusing fall-from-grace.  Also, these dramatic compliments fail to reinforce and leave no room for practicing the finer aspects of character such as  repeated effort and delaying gratification.

5)  Doing anything that might unintentionally interfere with our kids’ sleep.  Trying to be nice by letting them stay up a little later could cause them to miss that “sweet spot” window of time when they are actually able to fall asleep. Then, instead of staying up “a little later,” they miss out on hours of valuable, brain-and-body-restoring sleep.  Another well-meaning habit is letting them sleep in your bed or crawl into your bed in the middle of the night.  This ritual leaves mommy and daddy cranky and disconnected, but it could also  interrupt and interfere with your child’s sleep pattern.   A third example of this is putting them in night-time lessons, sports, or activities, which could be character-building and good for them in other ways, but could come at the expense of valuable sleep.

6)  “Rescuing them” when they make a mistake.  If my kindergardener realizes half-way to school that he forgot to  bring his truck for show-and-tell, I am certainly that parent that would be tempted to run home and drop it off at the school.  And if my 3-year-old’s impulsivity takes over and he picks some flowers from the neighbor’s garden, I am definitely that parent who would be tempted to offer to pay for them.   However, I know that if my kids experience not having the truck for show and tell or the drudgery of doing some jobs for the neighbor to pay for the flowers, they will be learning valuable lessons early-on.  And I also know that if they learn these lessons early-on when the stakes are simply a toy truck and some odd-jobs, they will be more likely to avoid those mistakes when the stakes are real vehicles and real jobs in the future.

7)  Choosing our kids over our partner.  Never prioritizing time with your partner, even if it means getting a babysitter, will absolutely create distance and problems within the relationship…Which, incidentally, is never good for the kids.  Rolling your eyes when your partner suggests Chinese take-out (because “the kids don’t like Chinese”), ignoring your partner’s difficulties with the kids sleeping in your bed, or balking at his idea that you go camping together (because the kids couldn’t be left with a babysitter or the kids wouldn’t do well with the mosquitoes) will only put a rift between you and your partner, and possibly between your partner and the kids.  Again, this dynamic is ultimately not in the best interest of the kids.  It also does nothing to model the give-and-take and compromise of a healthy relationship and gives the kids the impression that the world does and should revolve around them.  It’s best for everyone, including the kids, to sometimes honor your partner over your kids.

8)  Reminding them how unsafe everything is.  I learned this one the hard way when my then-four-year-old nearly had a hysterical panic attack when I began inching out the driveway a split second before he was fully buckled into his five-point-harness.  A few months later, during a similar meltdown about the fact that his bedroom was on the second floor and we didn’t have a rope ladder to use in case of fire,  I realized that I had been reminding him about the potential dangers of life way too much.  Sometimes giving a young kid the impression that life is safest living in a bubble is just not worth the tightly-wound quality of life.

9)  Not holding them accountable for being respectful and polite just because we are embarrassed or think we can’t do anything about it.  I witness it happen at Target nearly every time I go:  The parent who is shell-shocked and paralyzed by her kid’s demanding and commanding her to “buy that” or “let’s go right now!”  Oh-wait, I witness it nearly every time because that parent is me.  We parents need to slap ourselves out of it, get over our fears of powerlessness and stumbling over our words, and publicly let those kids know that it is not okay to talk that way.  And I don’t mean “yell”  (see #13), but I mean simply remind them that it is not polite to talk that way, a polite alternative that they can practice is blablabla, and kids who talk that way do not get blablabla.  Or something a little closer to that and a little further from deer-in-headlights or worse,  simply giving them what they want to frantically make them stop doing that whiny, demanding routine that embarrasses mommy so much.

10)  Putting them in too many activities.  Yes, lessons, sports, and other structured activities have great benefits, but there is also something to say for unstructured down-time.  Unstructured down-time holds them accountable for entertaining themselves, provides opportunity for creativity, problem-solving, learning through exploration, and ingenuity.  It also provides them with opportunities to recharge or self-regulate if needed.

11)  Letting them make choices they aren’t ready for or not letting them make choices they are ready for.  So a 7 year old can pick out her own outfit, but it would be a mistake to let her decide on what is an appropriate amount of screen-time per day.  A 10 year old can have some say in the chores that he must complete, but shouldn’t be tasked with deciding whether or not he goes to school.  And to make matters more complicated, there is no “manual” on this because each kid is different.  Maybe your 15 year old can make appropriate decisions about whether or not he can miss a day of school or how much screen time he should allow himself, but someone else’s 17 year old may not be ready to make those choices independently yet.

12)  Pushing our kids to “get good grades.” Telling my child that “he should get A’s” may be effective, but it may not be effective at all.  It just depends on whether my child happen to have strong natural reading comprehension, analytical, organizational, attentional, and planning aptitudes.  (My kids are still young, so the jury is still out in many areas.)  Better results would occur if the goals were more specific and tailored to my child’s natural inclinations.  For example, encouraging him to create a system/routine that ensures that he turns in all of his homework, encouraging him to read all of the study guides for each of his tests, and encouraging him to do flash-cards with me for 10 minutes a night, would be much more effective than telling him to “get good grades.”

13)  Lecturing/yelling at our kids to motivate them.  At best, yelling is ineffective, and at worst, it diminishes the child and his relationship with “the yeller.”  And, as I know all too-well,  it certainly makes the parent feel crummy afterward.  Instead of raising our voices, we should try to motivate our kids with a calm voice, and a strong, unfailing (natural if possible) consequence.  There is no need for me to yell, “GET upstairs to BED!  NOW!” if a quiet, “little boys that don’t show good listening do not get a bedtime story,” gets them running.  (And don’t forget, this only works when #2 and #3 are consistent.)  And extra-ambitious parents could even throw in a calm and quiet bit of empathy, “Bummer, you don’t get a bedtime story,” during the resolute follow-through of the consequence.  Let the consequence be our motivator, (meaning there has to be a consequence), not the volume of our voice.

14)  Talking them out of their feelings in an attempt to make them feel better.  Telling a kid who feels left-out and unaccepted on the playground, “You shouldn’t feel that way.  It’s not that bad.  Don’t you remember, George just invited you to his birthday party?!” just makes him feel more unheard and more alone.  As hard as it is for us parents to sit with our childrens’ pain, we are giving them a gift by acknowledging it and simply hugging them and saying something like, “Yah, that sounds pretty rotten.”

15)  Automatically giving them their wants AND their needs, and not teaching them the difference.   Even a three year old can learn how to “earn” a want instead of just being automatically given it.  I’m personally afraid that if I don’t practice this concept early, I’m gonna have a hard time when all three of them are teenagers and expecting the to get the latest $600 gadget.  I also think about how much they will benefit from practicing considering whether something is a need or a want and also practicing delaying gratification when necessary.  But, man, I have to admit that sometimes it is so much easier and more instantaneously rewarding to just buy them that thing they want!

So, from here on out, I am going to pay special attention to a couple of items on this list, look the my kids square in the eye, and think to myself:  

Just something to think about!

Oh, Yah.  P.S, #16 should be “taking articles/books/blogs like this too seriously.” There’s no “formula” for parenting; so much of it is situational and dependent on the child, and there’s no substitute for using your gut.

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One thought on “15 Unhelpful Things Well-Meaning Parents Do

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