Old School Parenting Advice That We Need to Stop Telling Our Kids
As a parent and educator, I have seen that more often than not, parents have the best intentions when it comes to raising their kids. And raising wee ones is no doubt one of the most challenging callings you can personally take on (though, arguably, also one of the most rewarding). So it may be easy to understand why in our most exhausted moments, we as parents may resort to simply repeating the mantras we so often heard ourselves as kids.
But we now know that some of these harmless-seeming tidbits of often well-meaning guidance can subtly be sending the wrong messages to our kids. Here are the top 10 pieces of parenting advice we need to stop telling our kids.
“That’s how I was raised, and I turned out fine.”While our own parenting style is often shaped by our own parents, this does not mean that they didn’t make any mistakes. (Remember when smoking while pregnant was a thing?) Being reflective about what you choose to repeat in your own parenting will serve your child better than automatically repeating old habits. Similarly, the world kids are growing up in today is vastly different from the challenges we faced as children (online bullying, is one example).
Try instead:Prioritize understanding the needs of your child for the specific stage of development they are in. This will help establish strong bonds and trust with your child so they will come to you when they face challenges they can’t yet overcome independently.
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“Boys don’t cry” or “Boys will be boys”These two comments, and others like them, perpetuate the harmful effects of toxic masculinity by encouraging your child to conform to certain idealized (and limiting) masculine traits such as dominance, self-isolation, competition and potentially aggression. It not only teaches your child to suppress their emotions, it can also excuse and enable poor behaviours that are harmful to everyone (including your child).
Try instead:Take on opportunities to nurture Social and Emotional Intelligence (SQ and EQ) in your child. If you see that they are responding emotionally to a situation, acknowledge their feelings and the situation, and invite them to talk about what prompted these responses, then help them seek out a constructive way to handle the challenge next time. Because there will be a next time.
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“Be a good girl.”This harmless-seeming comment is the equally ill-advised cousin to “boys don’t cry” and “boys will be boys”. Not only does it teach your child to conform to problematic societal stereotypes of women and girls, it too teaches the suppression of useful life skills such as speaking up and self-advocacy. Because, let’s be honest. Some situations call for constructive social disruption (Emma Gonzalez, we’re tipping our hat your way). This comment can also subtly reinforce the dangerous message that they should learn to comply to those who may not have their best interests at heart - even down the road (especially around issues of consent).
Try instead:Recognize that your child is innately good, even when they may be making poor choices (and there will be many). This is all a part of learning and growing. Here too, if there truly is an issue with a behviour, take time to get to the root of the poor choice-making, and avoid making sweeping generalizations about your child’s innate worth.
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“You are just not good at math / sports / etc. I wasn’t good at those things either.”Nothing is more discouraging and limiting than having someone you look up to lower their expectations of you by projecting their own shortcomings onto you. As the thinking goes: Whether you expect a little or a lot, your child will prove you right. So this thinking not only eliminates all potential for growth in challenging areas, it also sends the harmful message that success comes solely by way of talent, not hard work.
Try instead:Help your child develop grit and resilience. We now know that children (and yes, even adults) have great capacity to improve in areas such as math, athleticism and much more. And even if they don’t end up being mathematicians or star athletes in the long run, they still will have achieved more and gained more skills along the way than had they simply stopped trying. This is based on the ideas of Growth Mindset. For this reason, even if a child struggles with a task, encourage them to keep trying and help them identify what strategies make them successful at their task.
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“You can be anything you want to be.”On the flip side, inflating your child’s sense of self with false expectations also doesn’t set them up for success, realistically. While, sure, you don’t want to play the dreamcrusher, you also don’t want to not prepare your child for the realities they will face. Success, as anything, requires hard work, determination, yes grit, and sometimes, a lot of luck. The former your child can control. The latter, less so. Don’t give them unrealistic expectations, even as you do encourage them to always do their best.
Try instead:Do all you can to support your child in their passions; take interest and be excited for their achievements. But also have open discussions about what it would take to be an NBA player, or Beyonce’s next prodigy. And always, always help them develop a Plan B.
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“You’re just like your mother/father/brother, etc.”At its best (“like father, like son”), this phrase can make your child struggle with their sense of self. At its worst, however, this sentence is a double-whammy that can make your child feel badly both about themselves and their parent. Additionally, it may also make them feel like whatever trait you mean to point out is a fixed quality (for example, being stubborn). This can hamper your child’s ability to grow emotionally. Don’t project your other people’s traits onto your child - and especially not in such a dismissive, toxic way. It isn’t fair to either people.
Try instead:Instead, address your child’s behaviour specifically, and don’t speak about it like it’s a fixed trait they cannot grow beyond. All children learn and grow, and while many aspects of their temperament may appear entrenched, give them a winning chance at proving your wrong.
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“Be careful.”Here is another tricky one...You want to sharpen your child’s awareness and tune them to potentially dangerous situations (all good intentions), but such a general statement can be confusing and just cause them to either a) dismiss you as a worrier, or b) to feel anxious about everything in general, which may not increase their personal safety. Plus, prolonged, generalized stress isn’t good for anyone.
Try instead:If you truly feel something warrants warning against, state it explicitly as well as your reasons for your concern (as well as what potential consequence might follow). This helps your child develop their own habit for considering situations and consequences. For example, “When you go to the lake today, be sure to check the water for depth and any hidden objects before diving.” If you have a personal anecdote for why you are worried about this specific thing, share it. Cautionary tales have helped our species survive. And humans (little humans especially) remember stories much better than vague statements.
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“Don’t worry. Everything will be ok.”Is your child concerned about a tragic story they heard in the news or at school? While it can be incredibly tempting to want to provide your child with comfort and assurance, don’t unfairly shelter them from the realities of life. Growing up in a bubble doesn’t prepare anybody for adulthood. It similarly does your child no service to not prepare them for situations that sometimes aren’t neatly resolved.
Try instead:Listen to your child, and explain that you will do everything in your power as their parent to keep them safe. You can even say you will come up with a plan in case of an emergency, if the situation warrants it.
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“You can have dessert after you eat your dinner.”Positioning dessert as a reward reinforces your child’s thinking that the main dish isn’t worthwhile, and that dessert is the be-all and end-all. Over the long term, and at its extreme, it can also cause your child to seek such treats to self-soothe and to turn to emotional eating; you won’t always be there to moderate their choices.
Try instead:Give them opportunities to learn how to make good choices for themselves, and to establish a connection between nutritious food and how they feel physically and emotionally. Encourage mindful eating, and give them a couple of options to choose from for each meal.
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“Because I said so!”Most of us have been guilty of utter this phrase at some time or another (even parents have less-than-shining moments). This phrase dismisses your child’s questions or wishes in a blunt, conversation-ending way.
Try instead:Instead of stripping your child of all sense of agency or power (and likely causing more opposition along the way), fold them into your reasoning and give them some context for why you are asking them to do as you say. Even if that moment you may not have the time / ability to have a discussion, let them know you will come back to this later (and let them know when) so you can talk about it. You don’t have to explain all your choices and decisions all the time, but you should invite conversation that shows you are making your choices about parenting thoughtfully, with their best interest at heart.
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