There are always some common parenting myths that seem to pop up as questions in my classes of teaching parenting over the last twenty years. I am constantly amazed at how widespread these myths are across North America and Europe. There is no research to support these myths, but they tend to persist as advice gets passed down from generation to generation.
1. Bad habits last a lifetime.
I’m sure you have heard at least one relative or friend say to you, “You don’t want to bring your baby into bed with you, because then you are starting a bad habit and baby will never want to leave!”
If that was the case, we would never start our babies off in diapers for fear that they will get too cozy in them and never learn to use the toilet. I often ask parents: “Should I start hitting my child over the head with a frying pan now so he gets used to the pain when he begins having childhood headaches later? No!”
It’s the same with other lessons in life. Preparation is good, but it doesn’t take years. It takes days. Children change and learn new things when they need to learn them. Bad habits take three days for children to break and twenty-one days for adults to break (we are a little more set in our ways as we age!). So do what works, now. When the time comes to make changes, such as when the situation no longer works for anyone, then make the change. This applies to everything in parenting: from sleep hygiene, to bribing kids to use the toilet, to instilling good study habits.
2. Children should have impulse control by age three, and should listen to adults.
No, kids don’t have impulse control by age three. Young toddlers and preschoolers are egocentric, meaning that their needs matter more than your needs - as they should. This is part of normal development. As they get into the school- age years, they grow aware of and begin to care about other’s needs. They will have better executive function (self-control, listening, paying attention) by age five and six, which is why they don’t start mandatory school until that age. Even through the school years, they don’t have maximum executive function. They begin to have a good dose of it in puberty.
Educators have long known that a preschool child’s brain is not fully developed yet, so they must hold off on their self-desires in teaching for the needs of the preschooler. Parents have to learn this lesson too. Even though young children know that “No!” is a sharp word that means something scary, at this age, they don’t have the self-control to restrain their wants when a parent says “no.”
3. You must correct a bad behavior or a bad situation in the moment it happens or else young children will immediately forget.
There is no research to support this claim. Yes, children forget the place in time when these types of events occur, but they do remember something from earlier on in the day. If you are angry, take a ten-minute timeout to calm down and then come back to address the situation, calmly and wisely. Or, address the situation at bedtime when everyone is feeling good and the teaching might stick. Young children will still remember! Repetition will help them develop routine choices.
4. Children remember things forever, so pack in lots of learning, activities, lessons, and experiences, and travel while they are young, before they resist
I wish! For all the worldwide traveling we did carting five children across the globe, they remember nothing before age twelve. For all those lessons we stuffed into their heads, they remember nothing now. Well, maybe one or two memories stick out, like three-wheeled cars in England, sinking boats in the bathtub as a science experiment, or the one cool snack someone brought to the soccer game when they were six, but nothing else brought back memories when I recently showed my kids photographs of when they were young. I’m sure those experiences built their brains unconsciously, but they don’t even remember their childhood best friends! On the flip side, when I asked my university-aged kids if they remember how much yelling I did when they were young, they replied, “None!” (Good thing too!)
5. Toddlers need harsh discipline to nip bad deeds in the bud, or their deeds will snowball and they will turn into raging, rebellious teenagers at age sixteen.
Children’s brains develop and grow in stages. Caregivers should learn about the physical, emotional, brain, and social development of their child, and what to expect at each stage. A thirteen-year-old is developmentally different than they were at age three. They have a much more developed brain to understand different needs and adjust their behavior accordingly. For example, they have much more self-control to use their words instead of hitting others when upset or angry.
Parents feel they have to teach the most important lessons, hard, at a time when young children’s brains are least equipped to understand these lessons. That doesn’t mean you let little Nathan hit his friends. Address the behavior with teaching words, over and over again: “No, we don’t hit our friends. Instead, stomp your feet when you are mad!” And by age thirteen, Nathan will have the self-control to do this on his own. Aggression is like water coming from a tap - none in the baby stage; full gush at age two; flow at age four; trickle at age six; dribble at age eight; and occasional drip at age ten. By age twelve, most children use their words instead of using their hands because of higher brain development and self-control.
6. If I don’t enforce consequences on my child, how will they learn how the world works?
My child needs to be punished in order to learn a lesson. All the other ‘parents’ in your child’s world, including teachers, coaches, etc., will be happy to issue consequences to your child, along with timeouts, taking away privileges, and a host of other punishments. Let them.
You, on the other hand, have the vested interest in your child of teaching a real-life handy skill called problem-solving. It takes time but pays off in increased communication, mutual respect, and love. When you problem-solve with your child, aiming for a win- win solution, you are teaching your child a great employment and relationship skill that is valued much more and has greater long-term use than punishment. There is no research that supports that punishment enhances parent-child respect, communication, and close relationships, but there are plenty of studies that show how detrimental punishment is.
7. Children want limits to feel secure.
No, they don’t! In fact, children want their way just like adults do. We hate it when we really want something and someone says “no” to us, and so do kids. What makes children and adults feel secure is maintaining their autonomy while being informed of expectations. For example, if we are attending a gala, we want to know some idea of what to wear. We don’t want to be dictated to or it’s demanded that we wear a certain item. We want to be able to make our own choice, but also want to know what is expected of us so we can make the appropriate choice. Children are the same way. They want the information and the ability to choose for themselves. That is why offering children choices, along with a little background information, helps them with their own decision-making and thereby gives them empowerment.
8. Teens don’t want to hang around with their parents.
Wrong. Most studies done on teens who rebel, act out and engage in delinquent behavior, do not have warm, caring parents who have structure in the home. Teens want privacy but they want involved parents who respect them, care about where they are, worry about them, and help them navigate the world. Teens don’t want or need parents that punish, belittle or dismiss them. Be close to your children, but let them set the pace for contact. If you are their trusted coach, non- judgmental information source, and problem-solving mentor, as well as a fun person they can beat playing video games, they will love you forever!
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