Good Parenting in Four (Easy?) Steps

You need a license to drive a car, to open a business or to serve liquor, but you don’t need a license to raise a child. Though the word “license” suggests some sort of permission, my point is that there’s no formal training required for a parent to usher a child into adulthood.

In spite of all that, most people turn out OK. However, when I talk to families, four mistaken beliefs crop up over and over. In fact, some parents even make reference to these when talking about their own childhoods.

Mistake #1: Motivating a child with dogma rather than with reason. For example, “Put on your coat because I say so!” rather than, “If you don’t wear your coat, you’ll catch a cold and feel miserable.” To an adult, the distinction may seem trivial, but young children want and need to understand “why.” Kids usually aim to please, and in most cases they’ll do what you say. Good parenting should prepare children for reality, not just open-ended commands.

Mistake #2: Saying, “Everything will be all right,” when no such thing is true. Of course, you don’t share information with your kids that they don’t need to know or can’t understand, but lying can have worse consequences in the long run.

Mistake #3: Promoting myth as reality. One big example is telling children to believe in Santa Claus. (And you’d be surprised how often parents address this subject in my office.) This is one of those sacred topics that we take for granted, but as cute as it may seem to tell kids that nice things come from magical elves, nice things, in fact, come from productive effort, hard work and saving. Again, I was very surprised at how many people have told me of their feelings of betrayal when they finally discovered the truth. Why set your kids up to feel that way? It’s fine to tell them about a venerable myth that many find enjoyable, but a myth is still a myth, and the inevitable consequence is that they will eventually know that you lied to them. Not a good trade off, I think.

Mistake #4: Shielding children from the consequences of their actions. This should actually be #1. Emotional discomfort over an error in judgment or a mistake can be a valuable opportunity for a child to learn. Of course it’s hard to not try to shield your child from pain, but it’s like shielding him or her from reading or arithmetic. If you wouldn’t starve your child intellectually, why do so psychologically?

All four of these errors stem from the popular, yet mistaken belief that, “My child is an extension of myself. How he turns out reflects on me.” No such thing is true. Your child is an individual; autonomous and unique, though not yet capable of functioning without your guidance. But the need for guidance doesn’t exclude their individuality. Your child will be exposed to the ideas of peers, the wider culture, and even his or her own opinions. Some of these may be mistaken.  While you can raise your child by proper principles, you can’t guarantee a particular outcome. What you can do is to train your child how to use her mind to make rational decisions and arrive at reasonable conclusions, i.e., to think.

Unreasoned dogma might calm your anxieties, but it does not teach a child to think. “My child must do what I say. Otherwise, what kind of parent do I look like?” That, and assurances that “everything will be alright” are nothing more than trying to make your child happy so you’ll feel better. You’re comforting yourself with a lie and using your child as a trusting participant. Not healthy for either of you!

The same goes for the Santa Claus and “protecting” your kids from the consequences of their own actions. By helping your child to NOT own up to his or her mistakes, or encouraging a myth about how the good things in life come about, we are ensuring future disappointment when the child-turned-adult discovers the inescapable truth that nothing worthwhile comes easily.

Parents err when they make child-rearing all about themselves. I’m not implying that parents shouldn’t care about themselves, but first and foremost is the child’s well-being, not the parents’ satisfaction. Kids should leave childhood with two things: (1) a sense of being loved, and (2) the ability to think. Parents who accomplish these things will have surely done their job.