Ten parenting habits you may not know you have
July 13, 2004
by Sharon Benson, Today's Parent
Picture this: You and a friend have taken your respective progeny to an indoor playground. The kids should be having a great time, but your anxious-hen buddy has squelched all spontaneity by gluing herself to the bottom of the slide and declaring the ball pit off-limits. Now you've got to decide: mention her behaviour or not?
We know it's not easy to be the bearer of constructive criticism. It's particularly awkward when the subject is parenting. Fortunately, most nasty habits can be corrected once identified. So here's our list of 10 bad parenting practices you may not know you have. We hate to break it to you, but that's what good friends are for.
1. Putting your needs last
When was the last time you hit the town with a girlfriend? Or took in a movie with your partner? (Watching the tail end of Finding Nemo after the kids have conked out and you're too exhausted to hunt for the remote doesn't count.) Sometimes we get so involved in our kids' lives, we give our own away, says Maureen Barchyn from the Family Centre of Winnipeg. We lose touch with friends, with the things we like to do, and that's not healthy. Not only does all work and no play make for an unwell parent, it also sends a signal to the kids you don't value yourself so why should they? How do you carve some personal space out of an already hectic schedule? It's that old time management thing, says Barchyn. Say no to extra volunteer work when you're overloaded. Write a regular chunk of me time in your agenda (in pen!). You'll laugh more, you'll be more fun to be with, and the time you spend with your kids will be better if you take time to rejuvenate.
2. Succumbing to worrywartitis
Complete the following phrase: Kids are to bravado, as moms and dads are to________. If you said worry, give yourself a sticker! There's no doubt about it: Worrying is a major parent preoccupation. Granted, we 21st century types have a few things to fret about, but it's important to keep them in perspective. Saskatoon mom Jennifer Marchand is so afraid of stray microbes, she follows her kids (Cameron, four, and Avery, two) around with a bottle of sanitizing gel. I realized I'd gone over the top the day they both held up their hands so they wouldn't touch the shopping cart in Wal-Mart. Since then, she's made an effort to tone down her anxieties. I don't want to worry away the best years of their lives, and mine, so I keep reminding myself I don't have control over everything, and not everything is going to turn into a disaster.
3. Accentuating the negative
A study conducted at the University of Iowa showed the average two-year-old child receives 432 negative statements daily and just 32 positive ones. Scary numbers. What's even more frightening is that most knee-jerk criticism does nothing to help our children become better people, says Terry Carson, founder of Toronto's The Parenting Coach. We say, don't do this, don't do that. But we don't tell them what they can do. Consider this fingernails-on-blackboard scenario played out every day in kitchens across the nation: Mommmy, can I have a cookie? Mom's response? Not if you ask me that way! Hardly instructive. Children, particularly young ones, need to be literally told the correct way to do and say things, says Carson. So put on your teacher hat and model the polite tone and exact words you'd like your kids to use. Be prepared to repeat the lesson, and don't forget to praise them when they get it right.
4. Failing to use your indoor voice
Admit it: You've been known to holler up the stairs to keep it down up there, or screech at your kids to be quiet when they're embroiled in a sibling spat. What we do holds more sway than what we say so, if you want quiet to reign supreme, turn down your own volume. Whisper to get your toddler's attention. Write your older child a note to remind him to clean up his room. Or learn a lesson from Penelope St-Laurent, who calms herself in the midst of kid chaos by repeating the phrase: If you want peace, be peace. It's become a sort of mantra, says the mother of two Alex, eight, and Maddie, three from Kingston, NS. She also finds humour helpful particularly when her kids holler at her. Instead of yelling back, I say, I wish I could hear what you're saying, but it's all distorted. Then they usually giggle and start over calmly.
5. Forgetting your child is a work-in-progress
Go a round or two with a biting toddler or hostile teenager and you might be inclined to wonder if you're raising a child or a criminal. But a lot of this stuff is really normal, and kids are just trying out the extremes before they figure out where they're going to fit as people, says Barchyn. Remembering that can help during tough times. So can learning more about child development, says Barchyn. Read. Surf. Attend parenting courses if you feel it would help. And most importantly, talk to the real experts other moms and dads who are charting the same choppy waters. There's something about sitting at a soccer game and hearing from other parents that their kid is doing the same thing as yours, says Barchyn. Doesn't mean you like the behaviour or put up with it. But to know it's normal in the big scheme of things is just so reassuring.
6. Pouring on the pity
Nothing like a quivering lower lip to bring out the superhero in most parents. Next time you feel the urge to don tights and cape, however, remember you do kids a disservice by not teaching them how to cope, says Carson. Take a kid suffering from the flu. (Please!) Pile on pity, privileges and over-the-top TLC, and next time sniffles strike, your little darlin is likely to overdramatize. Why? You've taught her there's a payoff for helplessness. Same thing goes for the kid distraught at being spurned by a friend or cut from the soccer team. Doesn't mean you insist they suck it up. But instead of just doling out the poor-you's, Carson suggests parents try making a simple inquiry: Tell me how you're feeling. Then stop talking. Silence is powerful. It gives kids the opportunity to problem-solve on their own. That's such a gift.
7. Denying you might be (gulp!) wrong
It's never easy to fess up to a blunder. It can be particularly difficult, notes Carson, for stepparents who sometimes worry they'll lose authority if they back down from a fight. When that thinking strikes, Carson suggests you remember the employers you've had who never, ever acknowledged their failings. Then think of the good bosses who were open to admitting their mistakes. Which did you respect most? Being willing to say you're sorry is a legacy we leave our children, step or not, says Carson. It gives them hope. Shows them there's recourse, that things aren't just black and white. And it gives them permission to be open about their own mistakes. What about that old rubric about never backing down from a punishment once it's been given? Fuggedaboudit! There's nothing wrong with going to a child and saying: You know, I've been thinking, on a scale of one to 10 the crime was a three and I doled out a nine punishment. I was wrong to do that and I'd like to renegotiate.
8. Neglecting money matters
If your lessons in fiscal responsibility consist of telling the kids cash doesn't grow on trees, time to rethink. Money management, believes Carson, starts with money. And for children, that means an allowance. It's not something you attach to chores. So you don't yank it the first time your kid fails to make his bed. To calculate an appropriate rate, determine what you expect as far as sharing, spending or saving goes. Then look for opportunities to build your child's fiscal IQ. Say your son really wants a pair of $110 Nikes. You've budgeted only $50 for footwear. You could give in to his pleas to buy the Nikes so he won't look like a dork (his words, not yours). Or, says Carson, you can put $50 into a pot toward shoes. Now the kid has a choice: save his allowance, get a little extra job or go mow a neighbour's lawn to come up with the difference. In the process he learns to budget, delay gratification and appreciate the value of money.
9. Not knowing the names of your child's friends
It's a shocker when the kid who inundated you with tales of Sara did this and Bobby said that becomes an adolescent reluctant to share much beyond name, rank and serial number. Making sure healthy boundaries don't become brick walls means parents have to work at staying in touch with what, and who, matters to their preteens and teenagers. At the very least, says Barchyn, it's a good safety net to always know the names, addresses and phone numbers of the people your kids are with. Toronto mom Kathleen Singer (not her real name) goes further. I like to know a little bit about all my teens' friends, she says. But I try to keep it casual and not do it in a way they'd interpret as being a busybody. Her low-key tactics include making herself available as a chauffeur, extending supper invitations and a bring them home whenever you like policy. She also avoids alienating her kids by not criticizing their chums' choices of clothing or hairstyles. I figure if they can't express themselves when they're teenagers, when can they?
10. Taking things waayyy too seriously
Sometimes we get so bogged down in parental duties, we tend to forget that raising kids is supposed to be fun too. If you find yourself stressing about toothpaste spit in the bathroom sink, or blowing a gasket over missing soccer socks, do like Angela Bloomfield from Long Sault, Ont., and hit the rewind button. Years ago she was squabbling with her three-year-old, Jake, when it suddenly occurred to her she had the power to alter the past. I said, Let's just stop and start over, really start over, like before the fight, explains Bloomfield. Then we did this thing where we pretended to erase what had just happened and started over with fake, cheery voices. The technique cracked up both mother and son, and proved so successful the family has used it ever since. Jake, now eight, and his sister Holly, five, sometimes even request a rewind when Mom launches into a tirade. It's an easy escape hatch, says Bloomfield. Gives me a chance to reflect for a second and figure out if what I'm upset about is really all that important. Usually the answer is no.