12 Ways to Mess Up Your Kids

4. ASSUME THAT WHAT WORKED FOR YOUR FIRST -- OR FOR YOU -- WILL WORK FOR YOUR SECOND

One of the biggest problems with parenting advice is that one size does not fit all. As Elkind points out, "the same boiling water that hardens the egg softens the carrot.... The same parental behavior can have different effects depending on the personality of the child."

If you have more than one child, you have probably noticed that not only do their personalities vary greatly, but other variables like sleep habits, attention spans, learning styles, and responses to discipline can also be extraordinarily different between children. Your first child may look to you constantly for comfort or encouragement, while your second may need nothing of the sort, preferring to forge ahead on his own. Some children respond better to firm boundaries while others need less definition. Therefore, it is important to remember that what worked for one does not necessarily work for the other.

The same is true when it comes to what you needed as a child vs. what your own child needs. You might have been a child who was constantly on the go and required a lot of active play, but your child might prefer quiet, mellow play. Keeping these differences in mind as you raise your own kids is key -- it's not easy, since it requires you to keep learning and reevaluating, rather than relying on your own experiences and memories. But parenting with the needs of each child at the forefront will go a long way for your and your children's development.

5. HAVE A PANIC ATTACK BECAUSE YOUR CHILD BROKE A RULE

Most parents have a general idea of the things that are OK and aren't OK in their households, but what you do when rules are broken can really make a difference between teaching your child a lesson and simply making them angry and resentful. When something unexpected pops up, some people take it in stride while others don't take it so well. But according to Dr. W. George Scarlett, deputy chair at the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development at Tufts University, one way to "mess up" your kid is to lose track of the larger context and all the other variables that are part of the environment in which you raise your child and in which your child exists.

For example, if your child sneaks a violent video game or R-rated movie, it isn't the end of the world, assuming you're basically providing a positive, supportive surrounding to raise your child. Scarlett says that "parents letting kids play video games with violent content and parents spanking provide examples of what I mean. If you just look at the correlations, you might conclude these two are bad ideas, but look closer, and it seems these two are fine for most when embedded in good contexts and caring parenting." Therefore, a "bad" activity every now and again won't be too detrimental to your child's development if the other 99 percent of his activities are more in line with your own beliefs.

Scarlett adds that "the overall message might well be this: that particular methods, habits, and behaviors aren't as important as parental attitudes and abilities to take child's point of view as well as that of an adult." If a child is raised in a loving, nurturing environment in which he is respected and his feelings taken into account (more on this later), then activities to which we might otherwise say "no way" won't have so large or negative an impact on your child's development.

6. THINK YOUR BABY SHOULDN'T BE BABIED

Despite old-school wisdom, it is virtually impossible to spoil your baby by being attentive to their needs or holding them in your arms for much of the day. Dr. Tovah Klein, director of the Barnard Toddler Center at Columbia University, underlines that "you can't spoil a baby by holding them or responding to them too much. Research shows just the opposite. Babies who receive more sensitive and responsive care (so their needs are responded to) become the more competent and independent toddlers."

Holding your baby in your arms or in a sling, responding to cries, and comforting them when they're frustrated can only help. After all, babies cry for a reason: it's a signal that something is amiss and they need mom's or dad's help to fix it. Knowing that mom or dad is there to make right the things that go wrong creates a sense of security that stays with them as they grow.

For older kids, there's a balance between being responsive and being over-responsive to their mishaps. For example, when children fall down, they often look to the parents to see how they should respond. When parents overreact to a skinned knee, the child will, too. But when parents respond in a laid-back way (perhaps saying, "Oops, you fell. Looks like you're OK, right?"), the child will likely respond in kind, and perhaps skip the tears altogether. But for young babies, it's almost impossible to over-parent. So, if you're inclined to keep your baby on your chest rather than in a carrier, go ahead. It will build a bond and sense of security between you and your baby for a long time to come.

A related point is that each child develops at his or her own speed, so pushing your child to do new things before he or she is ready can actually be harmful. "Pushing for independence too early can backfire," according to Klein. "For example, parents can be quick to move a child out of a crib -- like when they turn two. This takes away a known comfort from them (cribs are small and enclosed and help children feel safe). This can lead to sleep battles -- child not wanting to stay in bed, waking more at night, etc." So make sure that your child is ready for new activities and transitions. His or her response will let you know if they are. Be prepared to back off and wait a bit longer before trying again.

7. PUNISH OR SCOLD YOUR CHILD WHEN SHE ACTS OUT, HITS, OR THROWS THINGS

Expressing his or her anger by hitting or throwing things is a perfectly natural behavior for a child. It's a way for kids with their limited language and immature cognitive (mental) abilities to express emotion. Punishing the child for these behaviors, though it may be tempting, is not the way to go, since it gives the impression that having the emotions in the first place is a bad thing.

Klein suggest that rather than scolding a child for acting out, "Helping a child understand their negative emotion (anger, sadness) and in time learn to understand why they feel as they do will help them develop competence socially and emotionally. So,  empathizing with a child, rather than scolding them, while setting a limit (i.e., "I understand you are angry, but I can't let you hit.") bears better outcomes later than scolding and punishing the young child."

Rather than "shutting down" a child's emotions, help your child see that you understand his frustration and it's OK to feel that way -- but that there's a better way to express it.

8. TRY TO BE YOUR CHILD'S FRIEND RATHER THAN HIS PARENT

This is a common mistake that parents make, particularly as their kids get older. All parents want to be liked and loved by their kids, and to be thought of as cool is especially desirable to some parents -- so it can be easy to slip into the friend role, rather than the parent role.

Dr. Sue Hubbard, pediatrician and host of The Kid's Doctor radio show, says that it's critical to remain a parent, especially when it comes to setting boundaries about experimenting with substances. The rate of alcohol and drug use in teens is climbing, and Hubbard feels that "part of that may be due to the fact that parents want to be their child's friend rather than parent. It is often easier to say yes than no, and parents seem to turn a blind eye at times to the use of alcohol and drugs (especially weed) in their own homes. The scary part of this: alcohol is the leading cause of death among teenagers."

Presented by

Alice G. Walton, PhD, is a health journalist and an editor at The Doctor Will See You Now.

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