Mistakes Parents Make and Why They Make Them

Parents make numerous mistakes when raising their children. Examples include:

Big Mistake # 1: Motivating the child with dogma rather than reason. In other words, “Do what I say,” rather than: “If you do X, then Y will happen.” For example: “If you don’t wear your coat, you’ll catch a cold and feel miserable. Remember last time?” Or: “If you eat now you’ll ruin your appetite — and you won’t enjoy the surprise I have for dinner!” To an adult, the distinction may seem trivial. But young children want to understand why. It’s true that they usually aim to please, as well. So in most cases they’ll do what you say. But the purpose of childhood is to prepare children for reality, and to prepare children to develop sound, thinking minds. You don’t do this by commands alone.

Big Mistake # 2: Telling the child, “Everything will be all right,” when no such thing is true, or nothing of the kind is known. It’s true that you don’t share with your children things they don’t need to know, cannot understand or are not responsible for. But you don’t go out of your way to lie to a child, either.

Big Mistake # 3: Promoting myth as reality. One big example is telling children to believe in Santa Claus. The error here is implying that nice things come from magical elves, working in the North Pole, selflessly for children everywhere. Get real! In reality, nice things only come from productive effort, hard work and saving. Don’t we have enough socialism and “entitled-ism” in the world as it is? It’s fine to tell people there’s a myth of Santa Claus that many find enjoyable. But a myth is still a myth. Don’t lie to your kids, especially about a principle of importance beyond their years.

Big Mistake # 4: Shielding children from the consequences of their actions. This is the LAST thing you should do. If your child feels emotional pain or discomfort over an error in judgment, or a mistaken action, then it’s an opportunity for the child to learn. Shielding your child from pain is like shielding your child from learning reading, writing or arithmetic. If you wouldn’t starve your child intellectually, why would you do so psychologically?

These errors made by parents all stem from a mistaken but widely held belief: “My child is an extension of myself. How he turns out reflects on me.” No such thing is true! Your child is a little individual. He or she is an autonomous, unique being not yet capable of functioning alone in the world, and, yes, requiring your guidance. But a requirement for nurturing and guidance does not eliminate the fact of individuality. Your child will evolve into a young adult and eventually an adult. Starting in young adulthood, he or she will be exposed to the ideas of peers, the wider culture, and even some of his or her own unique ideas. Some of these ideas may be mistaken. But they’re not you’re fault; they’re the product of the young adult’s errors in thinking.

While you can raise your child by proper principles, you cannot guarantee a particular outcome in adulthood. What you can and must do is train your child to think, while your child still is a child.

When you motivate your child with unreasoned dogma or commands, rather than logical if-then statements, you’re not teaching your child to think. Instead, you’re acting on anxiety. You’re acting on the premise, “My child must do what I say. Otherwise, what kind of parent do I look like?”

When you tell your child everything will be all right, when this isn’t necessarily true, you’re trying to make your child happy so you’ll feel better. You’re trying to comfort yourself with a lie, using your child as a willing and trusting participant. Not good for you or the child!

When you tell your children to believe in Santa Claus, or more generally to believe in things that aren’t true, you’re not just telling a small lie (which is bad enough); you’re telling a big lie about the nature of existence. You’re undercutting the very values and philosophy that you claim, in other contexts, you want to uphold for your child: Productivity, self-responsibility, and rationality.

When you shield your children from the consequences of their faulty thinking or mistaken behavior, you’re acting on the premise that, “No child of mine is going to suffer.” Now there’s a pseudo-noble impulse! By ensuring that your child doesn’t suffer now, you likewise ensure future suffering when the child-turned-adult is unable or unwilling to engage in productive effort, something that usually involves a degree of suffering along the way. Instead of teaching that nothing worthwhile comes easily, you imply that everything should come easily.

Parents err when they make child-rearing about themselves, rather than about the kid. I’m not implying parents shouldn’t care about themselves. But they must focus on the child’s well-being, not their own neurotic satisfaction. Children ought to leave childhood with two things: (1) A sense of being loved, and (2) having learned to think. Parents who accomplish these two things have surely done their job.