Like many new parents, we assumed that we would ‘instinctively’ know how best to raise our own children, after all doesn’t parenting come naturally? How wrong we were! We both had very different parenting styles and couldn’t agree on the best way to raise our children to make them responsible and self-disciplined. When we realised that our ‘instinctive’ parenting techniques (that were inherited from our parents or us reacting in opposition to what they had done) just weren’t working, we turned to the experts and the latest research to maximise our chances of raising happy and confident children who will thrive.
We discovered that we were making plenty of mistakes without even realising it and that most people around us were falling into the same common parenting pitfalls. In fact between the two of us, Carole and I have made every common parenting mistake on the list below (and still do from time to time!). We realised the importance of being aware of these common pitfalls as positive change cannot start without an acknowledgement of why these mistakes have such a negative impact upon our children.
Our intention is not to make parents feel guilty, because as parents ourselves we know exactly how hard raising kids can be, and despite all of our knowledge and experience we still make mistakes. Our objective is to help increase your awareness of the effect that such mistakes can have on your children, so that you can identify areas where you might want to improve your skills and continue along your parenting journey with a renewed sense of confidence.
Here are seven of the most common mistakes that loving parents make:
- Over-praising and using positive reinforcement: using phrases such as ‘good boy’ and ‘good girl’ and praising everything children do well to reinforce their good behaviour is a very common trait. Unfortunately, using such ‘evaluative praise’ and descriptively praising every good behaviour is a form of reward that they will come to expect as motivation to want to do things in the longer-term. For example, research shows that a child who is praised for being a ‘good sharer’ is likely to become less generous over time than one who hasn’t been praised this way. Using evaluative praise such as ‘you are smart/clever’ can also make them afraid of not living up to this ‘label’ and our expectations of them, and this makes them less likely to take on new challenges and more afraid of making mistakes.
- Getting Angry and shouting: When we raise our voice or yell at our children, this puts them in ‘fight or flight’ mode – this is the body’s response to stress, which means that their logical brain shuts down and they essentially can’t ‘hear’ us anymore. When our children are in ‘fight or flight’ mode, we can get angry at them and shout until we are ‘blue in the face’, but the message still will not get through, so all the lecturing typically done in these circumstances is a waste of energy! If they do comply with our requests, it will only be out of fear and it will have very little impact on helping to improve their behaviour in the long-term. In fact, quite the opposite is true; if you resort to anger and shouting in order to try to modify your children’s behaviour they’ll become even less likely to want to listen to you and cooperate, and it may even damage the connection you have with them in the long-term.
- Over-protecting: in this day and age, parents are becoming more anxious and over-protecting children. By over-protecting them, we prevent them from making enough mistakes, which if handled well, are invaluable opportunities for learning. Although protecting our children and stopping them from making mistakes may sound like a positive thing, we are in fact inadvertently denying them the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and take responsibility for their own actions. We are also preventing them from building their ‘frustration’ muscle by not allowing them to face difficult emotions such as anger and disappointment. Unfortunately, protecting our children from challenging emotions doesn’t prepare them for life in the ‘real world’ where we face such challenging emotions on an almost daily basis. The implications of this are that we are now faced with a new generation that is becoming increasingly dependent on their parents to do things for them, and who are less resilient to the trials and tribulations of adult life. What we must strive to teach our children is that adversity is a part of life and in order to be prepared for all the challenges that life will undoubtedly throw their way, they need to learn skills that will help them cope and ultimately grow from their experiences.
- Punishing: although we must make our children accountable for their actions, there are far more effective ways of achieving this than resorting to punishment and fear tactics, particularly if the punishment is corporal. Research shows that there is a long list of potential consequences of punishing. Children who are regularly punished will only comply with their parent’s instructions and requests out of fear, so the effect is only short-term. In the long-term, punishment not only damages the relationship and connection we have with our children, but it can also cause them to become resentful towards us and increasingly aggressive, and in many cases, they will learn to lie as a means of avoiding future punishment.
- Discounting children’s feelings: for example, by using phrases such as “Come on, it’s not that bad”, “Only babies cry” or “Boys don’t cry”. Discounting our children’s emotions in this way can create serious anxiety in the long-term, because it can cause them to become unsure of themselves and distrustful of their own emotions. Some psychologists argue that this is a form of ‘emotional neglect’ as it can have serious long-term consequences.
- Reassuring children: it seems like a natural thing for parents to want to reassure their children by telling them that everything is going to be okay. For example, if they happen to break their favourite toy, it’s a common reaction to want to ‘swoop in’ and try to reassure our children and ‘fix’ the problem for them, so we may say “I hate to see you so upset because you broke your favourite toy, don’t worry, I will buy you another one”. We may think that we are helping by doing this, but the reality is that we are not allowing children to deal with their feelings. Children need to be given opportunities to practice patience and get used to experiencing feelings of sadness and frustration; they also need to be be allowed to learn from their own mistakes, as all these are essential life skills that will help to prepare them for the pressures of adult life.
- Being a tiger parent: tiger parents tend to be pushy and have a strong focus on achievement and academics and a tendency to engage in ‘competitive parenting’. This style of parenting has become increasingly prevalent over the last decade and some children may react positively to it and excel academically. However, other children may end up being ‘crushed’ by this style of parenting and be affected for the rest of their lives. There is a wealth of scientific research and anecdotal evidence to suggest that this can lead to serious anxiety for children and that they usually end up unhappy.. Truly effective parenting is about finding the right ‘middle ground’ between having high expectations and helping to nurture and develop a ‘growth mindset’ in our children (as opposed to a fixed mindset).
Long term effects:
We may only see the effects of our mistakes later on when our children become adolescent, by which time it is much harder to repair any damage that’s already been done. We have described above the negative effects that such mistakes can cause. Generally speaking, when we do some (or all) of the above, our children become resentful towards us in the long term as we are sending them the message that they are not capable without us ordering them around or ‘hovering’ over them and trying to protect them at every moment.
Whether we are too strict or too lenient, neither approach is effective for raising our children to become resilient and autonomous adults in the long-term. If we ‘over-protect’ them, we are not allowing them to make mistakes or experience frustration and if we are being overly strict and getting angry at them, we are not modelling the fact that we can control our own emotions through our own behaviour towards them. In doing so, we are failing to teach them how to regulate their own emotions, which is a key factor in them being able to control their own behaviour and developing their emotional intelligence throughout the rest of their lives.
So what can we do about this?
What we must remember is that all children require a more balanced and consistent approach to parenting, and all have emotional needs that it is our responsibility as parents to fulfil. That’s why it’s so important to try to avoid these common pitfalls, in order to maximise our child’s chances of growing up to be a responsible, self-reliant and happy adult.