Parenting doesn't come with a handbook. It's all on-the-job training. But the same is true for kids trying to grow into adults. No guidelines, just lots of unwritten rules that restrict who our children think they want to be. Ultimately, both parties want the same outcome: the kids' independence. Parents just tend to want to attach a couple of modifiers to that: responsible, successful independence.
There are subplots in every family drama, hurdles that must be overcome before our goals are met. Some of those hurdles we set up for ourselves. Often our good intentions, hopes and desires sabotage our parenting program. Sometimes we'd rather be the good parent than engage in good parenting. And sometimes our kids are right. We just don't understand what they're going through.
Parenting isn't just a job; it's a lifelong commitment. And when you're caught up in the day-in, day-out adventures of raising kids for around two decades, it's easy to fall into habitual behavior. Unfortunately, some of those habits are counterproductive. In this article, we'll look at 10 bad habits parents fall into, often without realizing it. Read on to learn their symptoms, as well as tips for breaking them.
10: Not Following Through
Guiding children's behavior through rules and limits is a big part of parenting. At some point in their development, children will experiment with you to see just how serious you are about those boundaries. That's why parents need to establish and clearly communicate the consequences of breaking those rules.
Here's the problem: Parents don't really want to punish their kids. It's so easy to think that a warning (or two or three) will avoid a fight, save everyone's feelings and fix the problem. Instead, failing to enforce the consequences of bad behavior just makes your child see you as unreliable and easily manipulated. And since engaging in the bad behavior carries no consequences, your child has no reason to change it. In fact, your child's behavior may become worse if not appropriately disciplined. Kids want the limits, and they'll probe until they find them.
If you want to change someone else's behavior, the best place to start is by changing yours. Set the limit, communicate the consequence and then calmly follow through when your child steps out of line. Be sure to create consequences that have meaning for your child -- like taking away a favorite toy for young ones or a cellphone from older kids -- and that you're willing and able to enforce consistently. Consistency is important when you're trying to change your image as an unreliable parent. But there will be outrage when you first enforce the consequence. After all, from your child's point of view, if you didn't mean what you said last time, why should you mean it this time?
In another scenario, parents may tell their children they'll do something for them or with them, and then don't. Both of these are examples of failure to follow through. The first deals with discipline; the second is a broken promise. The outcome, however, is the same. When you don't do what you told your child you would do, you become someone he or she can't rely on.
9: Not Setting Limits
Children come into the world knowing precious little. They learn almost incidentally by observing the happenings around them and manipulating their surroundings through touch, sound, facial expression and movement. We set physical limits to keep our exploring munchkins from danger. As they grow in size and ability, though, physical limits are inadequate for the sea of behaviors they'll experiment with. It's our job as parents to let our kids know which behaviors are acceptable and which aren't. These limits are essential for safety and household harmony, but they also help children feel secure by showing that you care and that you want to keep them safe. Limits also help your child develop a sense of responsibility for his or her actions.
Limits aren't negatives. They're expectations and behavior guidelines that promote safe, healthy growth. Children raised without limits are often fearful of exploring on their own, or they deliberately misbehave in an effort to find someone who cares enough to draw a line [source: Oliver].
If you've been living without limits, be patient. Sit down with your child and explain in simple terms what you want him or her to do, and why that behavior is important. It may take time -- as well as firmness and perseverance -- for both you and your child to learn to stick to the new boundaries.
Keep limits few, basic and clear. Children can't memorize a book of rules, so focus on behaviors with high importance. Keep in mind your child's level of maturity and his or her ability to meet certain expectations. This will help you set reasonable behavior guidelines. A toddler would have a hard time staying quiet and still through a two-hour movie, but he or she can learn that we handle problems with words, not fists and teeth.
Limits can actually expand your child's range of experience. For example, instead of saying no to a request to cook, you can say yes, but only with an adult to help. That limitation allows your child to experiment and learn important skills under safe conditions -- until the time comes for you to expand those boundaries.
8: Failing to Stretch Limits
As kids mature, they need more space -- more distance from parental protectiveness, a license to make their own decisions and physical and psychological separation from you. It can be hard to accept your child's growing independence and separateness, and hard to relax your need to protect him or her.
But maturity takes years, guidance and encouragement to develop. It's up to you to give your son or daughter space he or she needs in increments your child can handle. If you step back from your parent-child relationship from time to time and view your kid from a different perspective, it's easier to see when your "baby" is ready to handle more responsibility and independence. Failing to relax rules can push a child to rebellious behavior.
Stretching limits involves two-way trust and communication. Don't just drop the fences. Your kid wants opportunities to safely explore outside the old rules, not the removal of them all. That can be frightening and imply that you no longer care. Reevaluate boundaries before you change them and decide what's appropriate for your child at his or her present age and maturity level.
When you think your child is ready for looser rules -- or when he or she starts demanding them -- talk about it. Listen to your kid's ideas and reasons for wanting more freedom. It may be entirely different from what you were thinking. Share with your son or daughter why you're willing to adjust certain boundaries. Did he or she handle a tough decision in a responsible way? Discuss options for expanded rules and come to agreement. This doesn't mean you give in to everything requested. If a particular request just doesn't fly with you, explain why. Your willingness to listen and compromise shows your child that you recognize and respect his or her growing maturity. Taking part in deciding the new rules also makes kids feel responsible for sticking to them.
7: Consistently Giving In to Your Kids
You're sitting in a waiting room with a parent and child. The kid wants something, but the adult says no. The child keeps asking, over and over again, until Mom or Dad finally gives in. The parent put up some token resistance, but in the end, he or she folded like a house of cards. Sound familiar?
Kids start negotiating surprisingly early. They may not be able to form complete sentences, but they can form complete thoughts, including how to get you to do what they want. At first, it's a charming glimpse into your child's developing personality, as well as a startling revelation of how well they've got you figured out. By the time they hit the tween years, though, negotiation can feel like constant battle. It's so much easier just to give in and let them have what they want. At least you get a few minutes of peace and quiet.
When you constantly give in to pressure from your child, you've given up your role as parent. You're no longer guiding your child toward responsible behavior and sound decision-making. Meanwhile, your child loses respect for you and keeps arguing for outrageous privileges.
On some points, like expanding certain limits, negotiating and coming to a mutually agreeable compromise is the best route. On others, parents must be a brick wall. When the short answer to a certain request is "no," and the long answer is "no way," make it immediately clear to your child that you're not budging on this issue and they need to move on. This quick and simple "no" saves a lot of agony for both of you, and it eliminates your child getting his or her hopes up, only to have you dash them later on.
6: Acting Like a Servant
Since the goal of child-rearing is to grow them up and move them out, it's counterintuitive to spare them chores. Kids need responsibilities to feel mature and part of the family, as well as to develop the skills they'll need for living on their own.
Parents, however, get used to doing everything for our sons and daughters when we bring them home as infants. Sometimes it's hard to break that habit. By the time kids reach their teens, parents can feel overwhelmed, frustrated and resentful toward children who don't do anything for themselves. For some parents, that's what it takes to make us see that our kids are capable of doing much more for themselves.
In fact, even preschool boys and girls can be trusted with small tasks such as folding washcloths or placing utensils and napkins on the table before meals. Parents shouldn't feel guilty about requiring kids to do chores; they give children a feeling of responsibility and help build their self-esteem. Regularly handling routine duties makes kids feel like they have an important place in the family. Chores also teach them how to work as part of a group, a skill that will be useful when they start school.
Using a chore chart keeps job responsibilities visible to children and eliminates the "I forgot" excuse. If resistance becomes a chronic issue or a child refuses to do his tasks altogether, calmly explain that everyone in the household is expected to share the work. Follow up by explaining that certain privileges depend on doing chores correctly and in a timely manner. Be specific about what items or activities you'll take away if your kid doesn't complete assigned duties, and make sure that you're willing and able to follow through. If your son or daughter still refuses to pitch in, don't make a fuss. Calmly remove the specified privilege and explain that it will be returned when he or she regains his or her household work ethic.
Chores aren't punishment. They give children a sense of belonging and worth, and they teach skills that will help kids enter the world of independence with confidence.
5: Using Intimidation
Communication is critical in the parent-child relationship. But not all forms of communication are productive. Parents and kids can often drive each other nuts. Under stress -- including the stress of parenting -- many Moms and Dads reach a point where their responses become emotional. We can fall into the pattern of yelling at an errant child, standing over him or her threateningly or poking a finger at the poor kid. These intimidation techniques may have the goal of impressing your child with your authority, but they really just show that you've lost control of yourself and of the situation. This behavior is rude and demeaning to your kid, and it shuts down communication. Faced with such a barrage, children are unlikely to feel that you're open to their input. So they stay silent and rigid, and parental ire escalates, often ending with the parent demanding an answer or asking if the child is even listening. The whole scene is a bad example for handling emotions and dealing with problems.
Emotions are normal and natural, and everyone experiences the full range, including anger. But just as you want to model good behavior for your child, it's important to model self-control of emotions. Here are some tips for avoiding the intimidation scene:
- Take a deep breath and relax your body. Counting to 10 can help shift you out of the emotional part of your brain and back into the rational part.
- Sit down. This puts you at eye level with your child, so you're not looming over him or her.
- Put your hands in your pockets or reach out to hold your kid's hands. This keeps you from stabbing angry fingers in his or her face.
- Focus on the problem, not your son or daughter.
- Take a break if you or your child gets too worked up.
4: Being a Friend Before Being a Parent
Think you're your kid's best buddy? Think again. You're not a friend; you're a parent. And that's what your child needs and wants you to be. You can't simultaneously be a pal and tell your kids what they can and can't do.
Parents need to be teachers, leaders, providers and disciplinarians. That's as it should be, since kids rely on parents to take care of them. Sure, it's no fun being the rules police, especially when you've only got a few hours each day to spend with your child. But children want parents to be in charge, despite what they say to the contrary, or how many times they tell us that all their friends' parents are more fun than we are.
Guilt is often a driving factor behind acting like your child's friend instead of the parent. Kids know how to leverage that guilt to get parents to do what they want. They'll twist the guilt knife with comments like, "If you were really my friend, you'd . . ." or "If you let me do this, I'll love you." When this happens, the relationship is upside down. Your child has taken control, and you've lost your parental authority.
Remember your ultimate goal: raising your child into the world as a responsible, successful, independent adult. Active parenting, with all the rules, discipline and the occasional "absolutely not," are all part of reaching that goal.
There is an upside to being a parent instead of a friend. When children respect their parents' authority, they have confidence in their parents' ability to keep them safe and provide good guidance. They're also more willing to respect other authority figures, like grandparents and teachers.
3: Comparing and Criticizing
Among the things that mental health experts say parents should never say to a child are the phrases: "Why can't you be more like you sister?" and "Hey everyone, look at what a baby Johnny is." Negative comparisons and public shaming are two of 10 parental behaviors identified as verbal abuse. Like physical abuse, verbal abuse can slow and negatively affect the brain development of young children. In older kids, verbal abuse causes mental anguish, depression and low self-esteem. It may also make it harder for adolescents to develop and maintain healthy relationships when they grow up [sources: Sclafani, Better Brains for Better Babies, Coyne and Purdy].
Parents use verbal putdowns as a way to shame their son or daugher into doing better. But verbal putdowns aren't constructive criticism, and kids don't feel motivated to improve their behavior because of negative comparisons. They just feel humiliated and betrayed by their parent [source: Hicks].
Instead of making negative comparisons between your children, or between your child and his or her peers, identify your boy or girl's unique strengths and qualities and cultivate an appreciation for them. If you must vent about a particular incident involving your kid, do so with a trusted confidant when your son or daughter isn't around to hear the conversation. Don't try to discuss the issue in veiled phrases and code words in your child's presence. Kids are smart, and your subterfuge won't fool them.
Parents usually want to give their children as many good experiences as they can, but there can be too much of a good thing, which we'll discuss on the next page.
2: Doing Too Much
There are many ways parents can do too much for their children; one is to buy everything your child asks for. In our material world, new gadgets and must-have fashions pop up as quickly as weeds after rain. Kids are often convinced they can't live without the latest thing, and many parents may believe the only way to make their boy or girl happy is to buy everything on the wish list. But deep down, we know that money and things don't provide happiness. Overindulging children with gifts sometimes serves the parent more than the child.
Another way parents do too much is to help your child with every project, problem or task. Sure, adults usually have the know-how to get the assignment done quickly. We've been there and done that -- and the past is the point. Now it's your kid's turn to grow and learn though the experience of doing. As parents, we've got to learn to back up, put our hands in our pockets and our mouths on mute and let our youngsters' ideas unfold.
Possibly one of the biggest challenges parents and kids face is overscheduling. Exposure to good things helps children develop healthy interests and lifestyles, but there can be too much of a good thing. Overscheduling often comes in the middle school years, when older kids have greater abilities, growing independence and more options for activities. Parents want their sons and daughters to find enjoyable pursuits and expand their opportunities for making friends, but sometimes we put our kids into activities that we always wanted to do. Another school of thought is that busy children don't have time to get into trouble, so we max out their free time. But busy boys and girls are more susceptible to stress. Symptoms that your child is overscheduled include:
- Complaints of headaches or stomachaches
- Loss of interest in a favorite activity
- Declining grades
- Forgetting or refusing to do homework or chores
Time with your child is precious, and even if they won't admit it, kids really want your time. Instead of ordering the latest gadget or signing your son or daughter up for another activity, schedule time to do nothing together. Time together may be worth more than all the designer clothes, high-tech gadgets and other stuff you think makes your kid happy.
1: Not Listening Enough
Today's teens live in a high-pressure, 24/7 world. Add on top of that the physical changes -- in body and brain -- that begin around age 12 and last into their 20s. Kids have problems that their parents often won't be able to understand. The old advice that starts, "When I was a kid . . ." doesn't have a lot relevance. Yes, we're older and have more experience with life, but when it comes to negotiating the intricacies of middle and high school, your child is the expert. Even so, it's hard to resist the temptation to tell your son or daughter how to handle the situation and then expect them to do it your way.
Listening is a much more effective approach to helping your child work through problems and make decisions. These are, after all, important life skills that need exercise to develop. Instead of telling your kid what to do in a given situation, sit down and ask him or her to tell you what he or she wants the ultimate outcome to be. Pay attention to your boy or girl's feelings and emotions. Listen and learn about daily challenges and achievements. Then ask to hear your child's thoughts on how to get to that endpoint. This brainstorming session helps your child explore possibilities, and it gives you a deeper understanding of how your offspring thinks and feels. Next, ask your kid to sift through the ideas he or she came up with to find the one most likely to bring success. Finally, ask how he or she plans to put the solution into action.
Your job through this process is to listen, offer encouragement and occasionally ask questions to get more information. If you think you can offer a valuable point to consider, ask your son or daughter if he or she would like to hear it. If the answer is yes, briefly describe your concern or an alternative your child forgot was available. If the answer is no, accept it as gracefully as possible. It is, after all, his or her decision to make. Sometimes parents just have to hold our breath, hope for the best and let our kid learn from experience.
Raising children is a tough business. As they develop and mature, kids' needs, expectations and desires change. It's hard to predict what will happen next. Recognizing when you need to make an adjustment in your behavior goes a long way toward being the parent your child needs. And chances are good that your kids will forgive your occasional missteps, just as you forgive theirs.
Lots More Information
- 10 Tips for Parents of Out-of-control Teens
- Dealing With Your Teen: A Handbook
- 10 Tips for New Moms
- 10 Things Parents Can Do to Fight Childhood Obesity
- Understanding Family Structures and Dynamics
- American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. "The Teen Brain: Behavior, Problem Solving and Decision Making." Facts for Families No. 95. September 2008. (Dec. 11, 2011) http://www.aacap.org/cs/root/facts_for_families/the_teen_brain_behavior_problem_solving_and_decision_making
- American Psychological Association. "Constant Yelling Can Be Just as Harmful to Children as Physical Abuse." Adults & Children Together Against Violence. (Dec. 12, 2011) http://actagainstviolence.apa.org/specialtopics/yelling.html
- Bales, Diane, Dr. "Disciplining Your Grandchildren." Grandparents Raising Grandchildren. University of Georgia Cooperative Extension. July 2009. (Dec. 12, 2011) http://fcs.uga.edu/ext/pubs/chfd/CHFD-E-59-14.pdf
- Better Brains for Better Babies. "Protecting the Brain." University of Georgia, Family and Consumer Sciences. 2011 (Dec. 14, 2011) http://www.fcs.uga.edu/ext/bbb/physicalProtect.php
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- Hicks, Brenna M., MA, LMHC. "Bad Parenting Habits and How to Fix Them." The Kid Counselor. May 8, 2008. (Dec. 5, 2011) http://www.thekidcounselor.com/articles/bad-parenting-habits-and-how-to-fix-them
- Longo, Mary F. "Children and Stress: Are You Pushing Your Child Too Hard?" Ohio State University Extension. (Dec. 11, 2011) http://ohioline.osu.edu/hyg-fact/5000/5152.html
- Lutz, Ericka. "Change Limits as Your Child Grows." The Complete Idiot's Guide to a Well-Behaved Child. New York: Alpha Books, 1999. Excerpt at Family Education. (Dec. 11, 2011) http://life.familyeducation.com/parenting/parents/45297.html?page=1&detoured=1
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