Most every parent does these things, so we assume that they must be fine. Unfortunately, they can be quite detrimental to our children. Fortunately, they aren’t that hard to stop.
Today I want to cut to the chase and give you the top 5 worst things that we as parents do all the time.
#5: Saying “Good Job”
We say “good job” to our kids all the time and research has actually shown that this is quite detrimental. What we should be doing is telling them that we see what they are doing. If they make a beautiful picture just say, “Wow, you really worked on that. You put a lot of green in there.” You show them that you see them and their efforts. They feel you with them and the validation will cause them to go on in life and make more effort in their life’s endeavours.
If you praise their result, if you praise when they get an A, then they will do things to try to get more A’s and that unfortunately includes not taking risks. One really interesting study showed that when kids were given a challenging test and then graded, they would subsequently avoid taking hard tests on which they might get a lower grade and would try to take easier tests. They ended up avoiding things that actually challenged them and required effort.
In the same study, another group of kids were acknowledged for their efforts in the first test and subsequently were more likely to go on to take other challenging tests. When we say “good job” we’re not praising their efforts, we are praising the result, which teaches them to focus on getting good results in order to get other’s praise.
Their motivation in life ends up being about getting others approval rather than being driven by their interest in the world around them and their enjoyment of challenge. We subtly teach them to be like lab rats performing the rewarded task rather than empowered humans driven by their inner passion and enjoyment of life.
#4: Stick Them in Boxes
We all do this. It’s so hard not to. We stick our kids with labels. We label them as being a bad sleeper or a good eater or bad at math or good at reading. All these labels really cement their identities in a way that does not enable them to move on in life and experience different sides of themselves.
I myself had the label as a bad writer when I was a kid and it wasn’t until I finally had a teacher that said something different that I realized I love writing and I am actually at least decent at it.
If you see your kid doing something, just acknowledge what they are doing in that moment without acknowledging who they are as a person. “You finished all your food.” Or “you had a hard time sleeping last night.” Not, “you are a such a good eater.” Or “you really have a hard time sleeping.” It has long-term effects on our kids as they come to think of themselves in these ways. They will think they are bad at math and avoid it. Or think they are great at math and cling to that as a safe area for them to focus on. Kids change so fast and we have to constantly remember that they are a new being, capable of new feats, everyday.
#3: Telling Them What to Do
The third worst thing that we do is that we pressure our kids over and over to do all types of things: to eat more, to do their homework, to clean their room, to brush their teeth. Unfortunately, every time we push on our children or any human being, there is a defensive reaction to back away and not do that thing.
If, on the other hand, we just ask, “have you done your homework?”, then they are inclined to think about it for themselves and take responsibility for the act. They do still need our help remembering the various tasks, but if we can leave it at that, we are far more likely to raise a self-motivated and personally responsible child.
Quite young with my daughter, we stopped pushing her to brush her teeth and simply said, “hey, do you want to brush your teeth? Now is the time.” She actually did not like it at first. She liked it when we were taking responsibility for it so she didn’t have to think about it. But that was disempowering and prevented her from learning to take care of herself.
If you are pressuring your kid to eat all the time, studies have actually shown they will end up actually eating and weighing less when they are older. Imagine for yourself, if someone is constantly telling you to eat more. If you are like most humans, you will be inclined to resist the pressure and not be in touch with your own motivation to eat. Left to your own devices, but provided with the means and perhaps the reminder, most humans will learn to take care of themselves in a very healthy way.
As an another example, if we push them to clean their room, it will cause them to be resistant and not clean their room. If we keep the house clean they will want to do that in their room because they are modelling off us. If we are pressuring them, they will resist it and it really goes down a bad track, particularly once they become a teenager.
#2: Punish Them & Give Time-Outs
The number two worst thing that we do as parents is give our kids time-outs and punishments. Yes, these have a long-term detrimental effect on our kids and unfortunately they do not even work. Sometimes we get a short lived response, but the unfortunate reality is that it leads to kids with more behavioral problems who are more defiant and less likely to be happy in life.
If we can figure out the root cause why they are misbehaving and learn how to support them to behave through being connected to us, then they will go on to be happier in life. More immediately, they will participate in what we want from them. They will realize how to be in the family system in a healthy way.
By providing punishments, we actually make it harder for them to feel how to be a member of the family in a way that feels good to them. Kids want to be good family members, but we have to make the space for them to figure it out themselves by not pressuring them.
Time-outs are actually best given to parents. If you feel like your child needs a time-out, take one for yourself. See if you can cool down. See if you can think about what’s happening in this moment and see if you can come at it with more creativity and love. So many times our kid’s misbehavior is actually an expression of our misbehavior and our bad feelings that we aren’t managing. If I’m really losing it with my daughter, I will just lie on the ground and close my eyes. It completely flips the situation and helps me to get out of the stuck dynamic so I can be a good parent again.
#1 Teach Them to Stuff Feelings
The worst thing that we do all the time as parents, is fail to tolerate our kids’ bad feelings. To be a human is to feel bad lots of the time. To be human is to be upset, to have tantrums, to cry, to get mad, to get frustrated. As a kid it is even worse. They have very little ability to contain those feelings.
Unfortunately, most of us parents have very little ability to tolerate our own bad feelings, let alone their big, bad feelings, which are often quite tumultuous and loud. As a result, we do all manner of things to try to stop them from feeling bad. We reassure them, we stick lollipops in their mouths, we tell them they should not cry and that they should keep it quiet. We even threaten them with punishment if they don’t stop.
We teach them that it’s wrong to feel bad, but since that is impossible as a human, they learn how to repress their feelings. Unfortunately, repressed feelings lead to all kinds of misbehavior and mental health difficulties. So much of the pain that we see in our society is a direct result of kids being taught not to feel their bad feelings. People don’t get depressed if they are taught to embrace their darker feelings. Bullying doesn’t happen if kids are taught to relate to their anger.
It’s quite simple. If we can be with our children in their bad feelings and just sit with them as they cry or shout at us or express whatever is happening for them, then they can get those feelings out and move back into feeling good in themselves.
We as humans are pretty bad at feeling our feelings because we are given so many messages that we should keep it inside and control ourselves, but real joy is experienced when we allow ourselves to feel all the depths of our humanity and allow ourselves to express it in a way that is not harmful to those around us.
If we feel angry and we try to hold it in, we get depressed. If we feel sad and we try to hold it in, we get depressed or anxious. If, on the other hand, we can allow ourselves to feel whatever we are feeling and support our kids to feel whatever they are feeling, they will be happier and we will be happier.
This really is the one worst thing that we as parents do all the time. See what it is to go and be with your child’s feelings and see if you can just breathe into the intensity of what is happening for them and the intensity of what is happening for you. Show them the love that they need in that moment. Perhaps you will also come into a new relationship with your own pain as well.
Thank you for joining me for another episode. I would love to hear your thoughts and ideas about the worst things that we do as parents. Please join the conversation below and I’ll see you next time for another episode.
Julian Redwood, MFT