It’s no secret that parenting is one of the most difficult jobs—ever. No matter how conscientious and careful a parent may be, they’re bound to make mistakes here and there. That doesn’t mean, however, that they can’t work to minimize those mistakes and maximize their child’s healthy development. If you take it from Dr. Lori Whatley, a licensed marriage and family therapist, “there are some things a parent can do to avoid being a bad parent.”
While there’s no set of instructions for proper parenting—as every child, and family, is different—there are certain common behaviors which a parent can, and indeed should, work to avoid. If you’re curious what those behaviors are, wonder no more: we’ve spoken to a host of family experts to pinpoint the most frequently committed parental sins. So read on, and if you find yourself identifying with many of the behaviors on the list, don’t be too hard on yourself—after all, it’s one of the toughest jobs out there.
“The more decisions your child has made before hitting puberty,” says Kathy Fray, author of Oh Baby: Birth, Babies, and Motherhood Uncensored, “the better equipped they will be to handle decision-making” as they grow older. To nurture that ability to eventually decide “who they are” and “what they stand for,” it’s important to challenge kids to make important decisions at a young age. For example, putting them in charge of family dinner once a week. Though they’ll occasionally “stuff it up,” it’ll be worth it when they turn out “so much more incredibly capable” than their peers.
Like most things, personal freedom gets easier to handle with practice. That’s why it’s crucial to give children increasing room for independence as they age. “While it’s understandable” says Vinay Saranga M.D., child psychiatrist and founder of Saranga Comprehensive Psychiatry, “that at an early age you would set boundaries,” it’s important to let those boundaries expand over time. Though doing so may initially cause fear for both parties, letting children build “slowly build their independence” is more effective than expecting them to learn it all at once in adulthood.
Because children are reactive, “it’s sometimes easy to react almost immediately” to their behavior during a conflict, says Dr. Saranga. However, it’s important to remember that children are also impressionable, and always watching. Instead of displaying a reaction of “anxiety, anger, or some insecurity,” Saranga says, take the time to “think before you react,” and consider the consequences of the example being provided.
For good reason, parents often feel a sense of responsibility for their child’s wellbeing. However, that shouldn’t translate into catering to their child’s every whim. “It’s fine to want to help them to some degree,” says Dr. Saranga, “but doing everything for them removes appreciation,” as well as “build[s] really bad expectations.”
Sometimes the worst mistake a parent can make is doing too much parenting. While children are a special addition to a relationship, they’re not a replacement for it. “Forgetting to nurture their relationship with their partner and just focusing on the kids,” says Heidi McBain, a licensed marriage and family therapist, is a common mistake parents make, and one that almost always backfires. The extra attention the child gets will pale in comparison to the effect that a healthy parental relationship will have on the child as an example.
“Every parent wants the best for their kids and wants to protect them,” says Dr. Saranga, but sometimes it’s important to let them fail, even if it means they “get hurt.” In the long-term, he says, the best way to make sure they’re able to weather those mistakes—and heal from those bumps and bruises—is to let them “dust themselves off and come back” from mistakes.
If a parent has already had one or more children, it can be tempting to assume that each following child will follow a similar script, says Julia Simens, a licensed family counselor and author of Emotional Resilience and the Expat Child. However, that’s usually not the case. It’s important to take the time to get to know each child and set expectations accordingly. If a second child is more immature than the first one, for example, “allowing them to take on the same responsibilities” at the same age, says Simens, “might not be the smartest plan.”
Oftentimes when a child asks their parents about sex, says Jill Whitney, a licensed marriage and family therapist, “we get so caught up in our anxiety that we don’t give them the information they’re looking for.” This is problematic, she explains, because it teaches a child that they can’t look to their parents for answers, meaning they’ll search for less reputable sources. In addition, if they feel they’ve done something wrong by asking, they “may start to become embarrassed or ashamed about their bodies or sexuality,” says Whitney, “and that shame can interfere with eventual sex lives.”
One common mistake parents make, says Carole Lieberman M.D., author of Lions and Tigers and Terrorists, Oh My! How to Protect Your Child in a Time of Terror, is not talking to them about “scary things in the world” like shootings. She calls this “the ‘bird and the bees’ talk for the 21st century.” While parents would like to think kids will never come into contact with violence, this is a “rationalization parents make to avoid the subject,” thinking it will “scare their kids.” Instead, it’s a good idea to engage to engage the subject, says Dr. Lieberman, as it’s “a fact of life, too.”
“Most of the time,” says Dr. Saranga, “kids just want a voice.” Along with all the other things parents should do to keep a child healthy and happy, taking the time to listen to what they have to say is a crucial part of making them feel valued. While their thoughts may be disagreeable, warns Dr. Saranga, “at least give them the time of day.” And if something “is really bothering them,” he says, “take it seriously,” no matter how trivial it may seem.
It’s great to have a good relationship with a child, but only if it’s a relationship of the right kind. When a parent decides to act like a “friend to their teenager”, says McBain, they’re not acting like “their parent.” And while a child has many opportunities to make new friends, they only have one chance to have a responsible parent.
“Yelling” says Whatley, “is never helpful.” While it may feel like raising the volume can help to drive home a point, in fact it only “cause[s] anxiety.” In addition to worsening the disagreement at hand, it also “does nothing for the parent-child relationship.”
“Parents who expect perfection from their kids,” says Whatley, “will be sorely disappointed.” It simply is not a realistic goal. More importantly, however, doing so “can cause their child to become frustrated and anxious,” making them more likely to avoid trying new things rather than “miss the mark the parent pushes for.” As a result, the child will begin to feel as if they are a failure, resulting in a lifetime of poor self-esteem.
“When a child asks you to buy a new toy,” says Dr. Saranga, “you might want to comply and make them happy.” And while it’s okay to do so every once in a while, he says, “don’t make it a regular thing.” Instead, it’s important to teach children the value of working themselves for the things they want.
Dr. Joni Redlich, a board-certified clinical specialist and pediatric physical therapist, says she has seen “an increase in developmental delays, flat spots on heads, and torticollis (head tilts),” due to the overuse of baby equipment. Instead of transporting a child from a car seat to a swing to a bouncy seat, parents should allow children time “on the floor” or in an “old fashioned playpen.” If a parent does feel the need to utilize baby equipment, she advises, “save it for the time mom takes a shower or is making dinner.”
One of the best things a parent can do for their children, says McBain, “is to schedule in time for themselves each and every day.” While that’s time in which a child will have to fend for themselves, it will allow their parent to avoid getting overwhelmed and frustrated by a child’s frequent demands. While it may seem counterintuitive, a parent needs to take of themselves before they can take effectively take care of others.
When a child is misbehaving, it can tempting to threaten them with the worst, thinking it’s the only way to stop their behavior. However, if a child then continues misbehaving, it’s crucial to actually follow through on that threat. Not doing so will teach a child that they can get away with anything, and all future threats will fall on deaf ears.
If one parent tells a child something, it’s vital that the other parent backs them up. If instead one parent becomes the ‘bad cop’ to the others’ ‘good cop,’ the child will learn to only ask the lenient one when they want something that may not be in their best interest. If there is disagreement between the parents as to what they should do, that question should handled beforehand, while unified parental front is communicated to the child.
If a child doesn’t get what they want, they often try, then try again, and again, kicking off an endless cycle. However it’s important, says Whatley, that parents don’t give in to their demands just to help “create connection.” If the child is angry, so be it; placating “just creates a spoiled brat.” In addition, Whatley warns, it teaches children that they can “manipulate to get what they want.”
Oftentimes, a parent may resort to taking away a child’s privileges in order to punish them for bad behavior. While this may be an effective tactic, it can backfire if a parent gives those privileges back too quickly. By doing so, a cycle is created in which the child continues to act out, only appearing remorseful for as long as it takes to evade more serious consequences.
Parents often conflate giving their kids the best life possible with giving them the vastest array of options. Sometimes, however, having too many choices can be overwhelming, especially at an age when sometime is still figuring out who they are. That’s why it’s important for a parent to distinguish between the really important questions that should be left to the child themselves, and those more inconsequential decisions which they can make on the child’s behalf.
When a child does something good, a parent’s first impulse is to praise them for it. While a healthy dose of praise here and there can keep a child’s spirits up, too much praise can teach a child to condition their good acts on receiving vocal confirmation. Instead of motivating themselves—and learning what makes them feel passionate—they’ll only feel satisfied when the things they do earn praise from others.
Many parents believe that by keeping their kids constantly busy they can keep them out of trouble. While to an extent this is true, it’s also important to allow kids to occasionally feel bored. Doing so will require them to learn how to creatively entertain themselves, and help expand their imagination. Otherwise, they can fail to build up their own resources for entertainment, constantly focusing on the next event to keep them occupied.
It’s a great feeling when a child succeeds at something. Success, however, shouldn’t be the only measure of an act’s worthiness. It’s important, when discussing the activities a child participates in, to focus on their subjective experience of those activities, and not just their outward performance. Doing so will help them discover what it is that makes them tick, and not just what it is they may have a natural talent for.
“[Often] when trying to get a child to eat well,” says sociologist Dina Rose, author of It’s Not About The Broccoli: Three Habits to Teach Your Kids for a Lifetime of Healthy Eating, “the whole emphasis is on nutrition.” And while good nutrition is ultimately the basis for a healthy diet, she warns, “just saying it’s good for you…doesn’t get a child to eat broccoli.” Instead, it’s important to let a child discover different foods—and their distinct pleasures—on their own. By focusing too much on what’s “good for you,” or “bad for you,” she says, parents often “inadvertently teach poor eating.”
When a child is acting out, it’s natural, as a parent, to feel victimized. This is particularly true when the outburst appears wholly unrelated to any negative actions the parents themselves has taken. However, it’s important in these moments to remember that the parent is the adult in the room, while the child is still learning. If the latter is unable to act appropriately, it’s the adult’s task to teach them how to do so, not to feel victimized by their lack of decorum. After all, they’re just kids.
Seeing harm befall a child is every parent’s worst fear. However, that doesn’t mean a parent should protect their child from the negative—and perhaps painful—consequences that result from their own actions. If a child fails an important test, for example, it’s a good time to teach them the value of studying, rather than calling the school board to protest their teacher’s behavior. Too much protection, furthermore, is likely to teach them that life has no consequences, leading them to engage in dangerous and risky behavior in the future.
As a parent, it can be easy to project one’s own childhood trauma onto a kid. If, for example, a parent was bullied when they were young, they may overreact to any signs that their own child is being excluded socially. This can cloud a parent’s judgment as they seek to solve their own past difficulties, rather than their child’s current ones.
As soon as a parent finds out they are having a child, they often begin fantasizing about what that child will be like. However, it’s crucial not to let that vision subsequently cover over the reality of who a child is. Just because a parent dreams about producing a basketball prodigy, for example, doesn’t mean their child won’t love nothing more than sitting in the library. Instead of rejecting this unexpected trait—and trying to bring the child closer in line to what the parent imagined they would be like—it’s important that a parent pay attention to who the child really is, and is turning out to be, and raise them accordingly.
When dealing with all the myriad difficulties that raising a child can present, it can be easy for a parent to forget just how special childhood is. It’s important that a parent take a step back to remind themselves how grateful they are to have a person in their lives who is still in that magical stage of existence. Not everyone gets to come home to every day to a new macaroni portrait of themselves.