Parenting tips are aplenty. It can seem like there’s a new trend every week boasting about the best way to raise your kids or warning about the worst. With so many prescriptions for good parenting, naturally, it can quickly get confusing and frustrating. Below, we asked two psychologists to share the most common myths — and facts — about parenting today.
1. Myth: If your kids aren’t happy, something is very wrong.
In our culture, there’s a strong emphasis on happiness, so if your kids aren’t happy most of the time or in certain situations, parents start to worry. But it’s normal and healthy for kids to feel lots of highs and lows, said Jessica Michaelson, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and founder of Honest Parenthood, who specializes in early parent-child relationships.
This “is much richer and real than a monochromatic ‘happy’ life.”
According to Michaelson, each of us is born with a range of emotional experiences, some having more negative emotions than others. It’s healthy to be “able to feel and deal with all of them.”
She shared this example: Parents are throwing a birthday party for their child. They expect her to be happy and excited. But the child gets nervous in crowds and new environments, and had an argument with a classmate.
“She may feel glad that there’s a party with all her friends and yummy cake, etc., but is very angry about being overstimulated, scared by the loud noises, and anxious about the preschool classmate,” Michaelson said.
(She noted that persistent unhappiness may be problematic. It may be a sign that your child is struggling with depression. Some kids with depression may cry and have low energy and disrupted sleep. Others may be irritable, agitated and hostile, she said. Basically, the key is to see these symptoms consistently. “Of course, suicidal gestures and ideas are red flags.”)
2. Myth: Parents shouldn’t tell their kids no.
This is a new trend Maui clinical psychologist Heather Wittenberg, Psy.D, has been seeing. The reason? “The previous generations of American parents were more strict — out of necessity since it was just a more difficult time, but the kids grew up to feel overly criticized, as a group.”
Today, the pendulum has swung to the other side, she said. Now it’s believed that saying no to kids is too harsh and potentially damaging.
However, setting limits teaches kids various skills and helps them to feel safe, said Wittenberg, also author of Let’s Get This Potty Started! Saying no “doesn’t hurt and is fine, as long as it’s not said in an aggressive or hostile tone. The context is way more important than the actual word.”
According to Wittenberg, other examples of helpful limit setting include suspending your teen’s cell phone privileges because they went over their minutes (and letting them earn extra money to get the phone back); and taking your toddler out of a party until he can calm down and express his frustrations in words.
3. Myth: Good parenting is about good strategies.
“It is very seductive to reduce good parenting to a set of specific strategies and processes, but it doesn’t work like that,” Michaelson said.
Instead of a particular parenting strategy, what’s more important, she said, is the parents’ mindset: how they think, feel and interact with the world.
She cited this study, which found that a mother’s attachment style — “her ability to trust, her expectations of relationships, and how she relates to her own feelings” — during pregnancy predicted the child’s attachment style at 12 months. “We can predict how secure a child is going to be based on how secure the mother is before even having the baby.”
Self-confident parents tend to raise self-confident kids, Michaelson said. Parents who have healthy relationships tend to raise kids who have healthy relationships. Parents who believe in effort leading to positive results and perseverance after failure tend to have kids who are resilient and hopeful, she said.
In contrast, “parents who expect the worst tend to caution their children [and] encourage worry and self-doubt.” Because they tend to avoid challenges, she said, these parents dissuade their kids from taking risks and interfere in their activities so they don’t fail.
Michaelson works with parents who are afraid to do what feels right to them because an expert warned against it. Take the example of time-outs. There’s another trend that timeouts are psychologically damaging because they cause kids to feel abandoned, shamed and overwhelmed, she said.
Her clients who’ve used timeouts stopped using them. That’s when “things fell apart at home.”
“Many parents are able to use this tool respectfully and lovingly, and many children feel contained and supported with this kind of concrete limit and break from stimulation.”
Michaelson believes that a better approach is for parents to discover their own parenting instincts and experiment with what works best for their unique child. She defined healthy parenting as being attuned and responsive to your child’s needs. This means being present and engaged, and acting in the moment, she said.
“Prescriptions that are not tailored to your child can lead you to follow the book, even if your child’s behavior, words, emotions are indicating that something else is needed.”
4. Myth: Good parents put their kids’ needs first.
“Children can be all consuming, and our culture can promote a very child-obsessed way of life,” Michaelson said. This leaves many parents ignoring their personal needs, she said.
But it’s vital for parents to “put their own oxygen masks on first,” Wittenberg said. This not only helps you stay healthy, but it also communicates to your kids that parents are at the top of the family system, she said.
They “are there so that they can protect the little ones from harm. When children are in charge, deep down they feel scared because they know this upsets the system that was meant to protect them.”
5. Myth: Your marriage will survive neglect, while you’re raising the kids.
Again, because parenting is all consuming, some parents also neglect their marriages. “The early years of parenthood can easily drive partners apart from one another, and many many couples do not survive this neglect,” Michaelson said.
For instance, couples might only communicate when there’s conflict, engage in individual activities, and not spend time without their kids. The marriage becomes one-dimensional, she said, focused solely on parenting, not friendship or intimacy.
“Since our children learn how to have close relationships by watching us do it, one of the most important things we can do for our children is nurture our connection with our partners,” Michaelson said.
She suggested parents do this by thanking, complimenting and touching each other. “This lets each be a source of comfort and strength for each other during the every day slog of parenting.”
She also suggested having fun without the kids. Pick activities that involve laughter and something new — such as learning to sail — or activities you used to enjoy together, she said.
When it comes to parenting, there’s a plethora of dos and don’ts. And this plethora tends to change regularly. Ultimately, it seems like the key to good parenting (and a good life) is to remain engaged with yourself, your partner and your kids.