The Most Common Mistakes Parents Make
Recently, I was interviewed by pediatrician Dr. Meg Meeker for her podcast. The theme was the topic of my book, Twelve Huge Mistakes Parents Can Avoid. During the course of our conversation, several concepts were discussed that I felt you’d benefit from in a blog post. I have included them here.
1. In your book: Twelve Huge Mistakes Parents Can Avoid, you talk about what we parents do that keep our kids from succeeding in life. First of all—what do you consider to be successful parenting?
To me, successful parenting is leading and developing your child so that they can function as well-adjusted adults and reach their potential. This means we must think PREPARE, not just PROTECT. Our “test” is to love them in a healthy manner, so that they can replicate that love as healthy adults themselves. How they turn out is our “report card.” (Certainly, there are unique situations with special needs kids where a different report card should be used, such as higher levels of self-regulation).
2. Parents today work harder to get parenting “right” than I’ve ever seen in 30 years. But sometimes trying so hard makes parents too “good.” You write about Mistake #1- We won’t let our kids fail. Why do they need to fail? This sounds important but from a practical standpoint, tell me specifically what parents should do to let their kids fail. Should they set them up to fail?
Today, we have a large population of parents—millions of us—who “over-function.” We’ve been so intent on nurturing the self-esteem and safety of our children that we did too much. We didn’t want to “mess it up.” In fact, two extremes are happening in our homes today: abandonment and abundance. Adults are not present to mentor their children or they are doing too much, leaving children helpless to know how to do things for themselves. Both extremes leave the young adult ill-equipped for life after childhood. First and foremost is: We won’t let our kids fail.
Why won’t we let them fail?
- We feel like WE are a failure as parents when our kids fail.
- We are often living out our unlived life through our children.
- We assume failure will damage their self-esteem.
- We somehow assume that good parents never allow a negative experience to happen to their child. (In actuality—negative experiences foster the most growth. If we raise kids as fragile, they’ll surely become fragile adults).
For example, I’ve seen dozens of parents at Starbucks doing their child’s homework for them. I read about one mom who tried to take a standardized test for her teenage daughter. In 2014, one in twelve Millennials brought their parent to a job interview.
So, what are some steps we can take on this issue? First, parents should not set their kid up for failure. We should never desire our kids to fail. However, most of us would admit that our greatest growth in life occurred when we failed at something. Life will provide tough times and we should not PREVENT those times. But we should PREPARE our kids for them and be there to PROCESS those tough times with them. As they mature, we should loosen the reigns and allow our kids to navigate challenging consequences.
Consider the message we send our kids when we won’t let them deal with a difficult experience: “Bless your heart. You don’t have it in you to handle this. You need me…” Instead, we should observe their growth, encouraging them to take on opportunities that will stretch them—encourage tasks that lie somewhere between STRETCHED and OVERWHELMED. Then, as they mature, its best to lead with questions not imperatives. (Why do you think that happened? How did it make you feel? How could you have handled it differently?)
3. Mistake #3 is one I love: we prioritize happiness. Why shouldn’t raising happy kids be a parenting goal?
I’ve heard countless parents say: “I just want my children to be happy.” It’s only natural. But happiness makes a horrible goal. However, it makes a wonderful by-product. You pursue purpose and find satisfaction. Albert Einstein said: “Try not to become a person of success, but rather try to become a person of value.” When happiness is a goal—we shop for it, we date and marry for it; we try to find it in people and places that can’t provide it. Spouses can’t constantly entertain us. I remember John Maxwell’s wife, Margaret, answering a question from a spouse at a conference: “Does John make you happy?” She shocked everyone by saying, “No, he doesn’t.” Then, she proceeded to say, “I learned a long time ago that I must find a way to be happy without depending on someone else to do it for me…not even my husband. Then, I was able to expect realistic outcomes from my marriage that John could actually fulfill.” That’s brilliant.
4. Many parents realize that disciplining kids is hard—no matter what the child’s age. They know they should be consistent and make consequences stick. Why don’t they? These are two mistakes you write about. What can parents do to make consequences stick? Many feel so overwhelmed with being consistent in discipline.
Yes. Parents often return home from a busy job and they’re already exhausted. If they feel spent they often don’t feel it’s in them to level consequences because it’s WORK. Another reason we aren’t consistent is because we feel our kids need grace. After all, they are overwhelmed too. They’re stressed out. I’ve written before that stress levels in high school students today is equal to that of a psychiatric patient in 1950s.
But the truth is, consistency and steady consequences offer security to kids. Consequences are predictable in an unpredictable world. They provide boundaries in an “anything goes” world and they communicate love because you care enough to follow through. To make consequences stick, stop talking about rules and start enforcing “equations.” If they make THIS choice, there are benefits. Making THAT choice brings consequences. Life is full of equations and we must introduce them to our children early on.
5. Mistake #6 – We lie about their potential. We all see our kids through rose-colored glasses. Isn’t this a good thing? How can we be our child’s #1 fan and be realistic about their potential? What if a parent has a child that isn’t good at anything?
Every kid wants to hear Mom or Dad say they’re “awesome” early in life. But by the time they reach late elementary school and middle school, kids are comparing parents’ comments with peers and others. If Mom is the only one saying, “You’re awesome!” they begin to question our judgment. Or, they stop really believing us. I believe there is a way to affirm our children without being dishonest or exaggerating. Hyperbole is not necessary. We’ve all watched American Idol…where a young person tries to sing and we wonder quietly, “Who are your friends?” I believe we must be honest in our praise and stop all the hyperbole. Instead, Carol Dweck reminds us to affirm variables that are in their control. Instead of saying, “You’re smart.” Say, “I love the strategy you used on that math problem.” Instead of saying: “You’re gorgeous!” Say, “I love how honest and empathetic you are with your friends. You are as beautiful on the inside as you are on the outside.”
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