5 mistakes every parent makes - and how to avoid them
Bringing up children can be a minefield, but the most common errors are avoidable, write authors Dr William Stixrud and Ned Johnson
Everyone from your mother-in-law to the busybody next door has an opinion about what you're doing wrong as a parent, and most parents are their own worst critic.
We have no interest in adding to the judgment brigade. We are parents ourselves, and we see parents all the time as part of our professions. We know there is no such thing as a perfect parent.
However, there are some common mistakes everyone seems to make when it comes to our kids, and science shows us that adjustments in our approach can make life easier for us and our kids.
So in the spirit of helping parents go easier on themselves, here are the top five things we all tend to screw up...
1. When we get scared, or worried about our children, we tighten our hold on them
This is completely understandable. All parents remember being with small children in a crowd, and the larger the crowd, the stronger the instinct to hold their kids close, so they don't get lost. But as they get older, we need to loosen our hold, and that's the part we often forget.
To give one example: if kids seem to be faltering in school, and we fear they are hurting their chances to get into university, we turn into prison wardens, monitoring their every move, following up on every exam, checking in with every teacher. And yet, the work of eminent psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan teaches us that autonomy is the most important ingredient for developing internal motivation. A kid who is faltering needs more control over his or her own life, not less.
Further, the work of Gilda Ginsberg and her colleagues has shown that anxious parents tend to be more critical and controlling, and that when the parents relax, kids are also calmer and less likely to develop problems with anxiety.
By all means, stand close by and voice your willingness to help. Simply saying, "I'm here for you, and I trust that you want your life to work out and you can make good decisions for yourself," is powerful. At the very least, as much as you can, lead with, "How can I help?".
Becoming a warden is one of the worst things you can do, for what a struggling kid needs most is a safe space to rest and recover.
2. We assume that adults always make better decisions than kids
Again, it makes sense why we would think this. We have more experience and our brains are further developed. But we are not the foremost experts on our kids - they are. No one can know them the way they know themselves - or what they want for themselves.
A fascinating study looked at decision-making abilities of kids from nine to 21 years of age. The study asked the participants how they would handle a boy who refused to talk to his family or to come out of his room for several weeks. Interestingly, the 14-year-olds made decisions that were very similar to those of 18 and 21-year-olds. And those decisions resembled the recommendation made by most experts (that the boy get outpatient psychotherapy).
Half of the nine-year-olds chose that option too, and where they came up short, it was because of a lack of knowledge, not necessarily judgment.
While most people's rational decision-making functions mature by mid-adolescence, we do improve as decision makers as we get older, because we have increased emotional regulation. We can determine, for instance, when we're feeling too tired or emotional to even make a decision at all, and defer it to when we're feeling more balanced.
One of the best things we can do for our kids, then, is to give them experience checking in with their emotions around their decision-making. Even if you have a child who needs to get better in his decision-making, as with all things, he will get better faster with more practice, not less.
3. If our kids are anxious or upset we need to focus on helping them, not ourselves
If we had a pound for every parent who said "I can't possibly go on a date night with my spouse - my child needs me too much", we'd be able to fill a fountain with the proceeds. In fact, when we are anxious about our kids (or anything else, for that matter), that anxiety seeps into our kids. It's called stress contagion.
A recent study found that other than showing your child love and affection, managing your own stress is the best thing you can do to be an effective parent. To put that in context, parental stress management ranked higher than maintaining a good relationship with a spouse, offering educational opportunities, and trying to ensure a child's safety.
Stress is catching. Just like a virus, stress spreads through a contained population, affecting and infecting everyone in its path. This so-called second-hand stress can linger even longer than the original source of the stress, which makes sense.
If you experience a stressor in your own life like a looming deadline, there's something you can do about it. But your child, who is affected by your stress, can't.
4. Free time must be filled
It's tempting, we know. We see our kid sitting on the couch, staring off into space, and we want to say: "Shouldn't you be studying or doing something useful?"
But in actuality, daydreaming is time well spent. When we are not focusing on a specific task, but seemingly lost in reverie, we activate what's called the brain's default mode network. When your default mode network is active, you think about yourself, about your past and future, and about problems that need to be resolved - all which are crucial for developing a sense of self.
You also consider the feelings of other people, which is important for the development of empathy. Leading experts who study the increasing narcissism in society believe that it is, at least in part, caused by kids having too little, not too much, time "doing nothing".
Radical downtime is essential to a healthy mental life. It's subconscious, so as parents we can't very well say: "Go activate your default mode network please." But we can encourage them to take quiet time for themselves.
While everyone needs some downtime every day, how much is required is individual. Help your child judge how much of it he or she needs, as some kids will need more than others in order to feel recharged, just as, when they were smaller, some kids needed longer naps than others.
5. Doing homework is more important than engaging in hobbies
Brain science tells us this is not the case, and it has everything to do with how motivation works.
You cannot force intrinsic motivation. If you want your child to be motivated to do things he's not wildly enthusiastic about, like homework, the best thing to do is to encourage him to do what he is motivated to do. The more time he spends deeply engrossed in activities he loves, the more motivated his brain will be overall. Furthermore, fighting about homework is harmful to your relationship with your child, and undercuts the reality that he - and not you - is responsible for his homework.
Operate like a consultant would, not an authoritarian boss. Offer to support your child and help with homework at a set time each evening, but make clear that it's up to him whether to take you up on it.
[Writes Dr Stixrud]: I know this from personal experience. I was a so-so high school student, not terribly eager to hit the books - my passion was playing guitar. I spent hours and hours practising (often instead of doing my homework). I know now that I was sculpting a brain that is capable of great focus.
Today I spend time playing in a band - and I also spend vacations reading neuroscience studies. Those hours of practice taught me how not to be a slacker.
Dr William Stixrud is a clinical neuropsychologist. Ned Johnson is a motivational coach and exam tutor. Their book, The Thriving Child, is published by Penguin Life