My wife and I had breakfast this morning with a young couple who have a baby. They are obviously excellent parents. It seems that the skills to be a great parent come naturally to some couples, but not to others. Ever seen Supernanny? Do kids have to be that wretchedly misbehaved before we could agree 1) that parents can be sincere but inept, and 2) that there seem to be some common mistakes parents tend to make? Before I make that list, I should point out this tendency I have found for people to want to relativize almost everything I say. “Well, I hear what you’re saying, but I have found…,” as if there really are no common principles that most people should agree on and as if everything is entirely subjective. There are common principles and not everything is subjective. For example, you should provide structure for your children. It’s up to you whether you put them to bed at 7:30 or 8:15, but allowing them to set their own bedtime is not providing structure.
I also want to be clear on what this list is not. This list is not a set of predictors for which kids will turn out well and which ones won’t. Kids are incredibly resilient and can sometimes turn out well even under the worst parenting. Likewise, some kids who are parented with love and great skill will simply make bad choices for their lives. What I’m trying to point out with this list is mistakes parents make that indicate that they generally do not know what they are doing. I’m not saying their intentions are not good, or that their kids are doomed to grow up as failures. Enough explanation — let’s get to the list of mistakes parents make.
1. Failing to provide structure. Yes, of course we can let toddlers wake up at 6 a.m. and stay up until all hours of the night and of course they could still turn out okay. But structure is a recognized need for children, and the more structure we provide, the more secure they will generally be. Also, when parents fail to provide structure for their children, they have to expend a lot more effort in parenting. For example, parents who train their children to go to bed at a reasonable time (7 or 8 pm when kids are small) have time in the evenings to focus on one another and keeping their relationship in tact. They have a little downtime. (There may even be opportunities for sex!) Best of all, parents who structure life for their small children are able to get more sleep and therefore be generally less stressed out, which is ultimately good for the children as well.
2. Failing to apply even-handed and consistent discipline. Even-handed discipline is discipline that is for the benefit of the child, in order to teach him/her, and not simply a way for parents to take out aggression on children. Consistent discipline is when children know the rules, and can 100% count on mom/dad meting out whatever discipline they have said would come for violations of said rules. Parents who constantly threaten children but do not follow through are teaching kids that that are no consequences for their behavior (if they can take being yelled at), and to just go ahead and do whatever they want.
3. Failing to actually parent, out of the desire to be a friend. When I was a kid I had a friend who never had to go ask his mom if he could go anywhere or do anything. I’d say, “Aren’t you going to ask your mom?” and he’d always say the same thing: “She doesn’t care.” That is usually how kids interpret parents who fail to parent and let them do whatever they want. Parents should parent, and allow friends to be friends. If parents are parenting properly, kids will be secure in the knowledge that they have no better friends than their parents. If parents are trying to be friends, kids will resent it and wonder why on earth they don’t have parents.
4. Failing to say I’m sorry. Let’s face it, parenting is tough. There are no hard and fast rules that apply to every situation, so we end up making wrong calls. There’s just no way to avoid it. This can become a major issue between parents and children, driving a wedge between them and filling children with resentment, or it can become an opportunity for parents to model gentleness and humility by apologizing to their children and seeking their forgiveness. If parents do this regularly, their children will view them not as weak, but as strong. Even children know how much guts it takes to apologize. It’s hard to think of anything that offers as much potential for the building of intimacy between parent and children as a sincere and humble apology.
Back tomorrow with three more mistakes parents make.