None of us know what we’re doing.
Even those of us who are not parents have all had parents, be they present and caring, estranged, alienated, absent, neglectful, abusive, or unknown — and we all have healthy lessons and maybe even lasting damage from childhood that we need to learn to heal to grow from.
This requires each of us, mothers and fathers, and even those without children, to understand how to parent — either for their own children or for what is referred to as, “the inner child,” a term based on the Jungian concept of the “eternal child,” and examined by more popular psychologists such as Drs. Eric Berne, James Bradshaw, and Alice Miller.
Sometimes, things that surprise us. Our long-held beliefs are simply wrong and rooted in misperceptions handed down unexamined for generations.
We can learn to parent ourselves and others more effectively by examining some surprising common parenting practices that evidence now show are not as accurate as we thought.
Here are 3 classic parenting practices that do more harm than good.
Practice 1: Don’t talk to strangers
In the wake of common, horrific violence against children, such as increased school shootings and gun violence, child sexual assault, and cyberbullying scandals, it can be difficult for any parent to loosen the protective reigns on their children. Indeed, it’s often difficult for all of us to relax the reigns of the fears we have for our own safety in light of the challenges and violence we’re exposed to in the news.
Even when we want to encourage independent thinking and learning, which has been shown to lead to greater academic achievement in school, increased motivation and confidence, and better self-awareness and regulation, we are faced with the need to balance this independence with keeping them safe.
Luckily for all of us, both parents to others and those parenting their own inner-children, there is quantifiable data out there that can help us navigate these waters.
When we shield our children from painful realities and encourage fear-based practices such as avoiding talking to strangers, we do just that.
We are priming them for victimhood, rather than teaching them the literal Gift of Fear, the title for DeBecker’s most famous book about crime, the fear of crime, and the reality of knowing fear is a primal, important aspect of being alive — a gift we can train, target, and listen to while maintaining real connections and empathy for those around us.
In Protecting the Gift, DeBecker clearly outlines how and why, just like every creature on earth, human beings are hardwired to predict violence and violent behavior. Parents in particular, he argues, are hardwired to do this. Furthermore, we can encourage and nurture this ability in our children and ourselves and should do so in order to create a more tolerant, trusting society.
Encourage your kids to speak to strangers, then, while teaching them the gift of fear — the understanding that their instincts are rooted in reality and should be followed.
Furthermore, clearly outlining and providing tools such as warning signs of sexual abuse, how to keep teenagers safe and aware both on and offline, and even choosing schools and babysitters, can help in this process.
Practice 2: Labeling toddlers “terrible”
Pause and think for a moment about the term “terrible twos”. What image does this conjure?
Is it a fair and accurate representation of this stage of life for all children? Turns out, this term was coined in the 1950s, when housewives were expected to maintain picture-perfect houses and dinners prepared for families at a precise time every day, often with multiple dishes.
Two-year-olds, regardless of how much of a myth the “terrible twos” has actually turned out to be, are a lot of work and don’t fit as squarely into that particular paradigm as most mothers likely wished.
So are the terrible twos a myth? Turns out, they very much are.
“It’s an old-fashioned idea and not supported by research,” says Alan Kazdin, Ph.D., director of the Parenting Center at Yale University.
Two year old’s are mobile and do not yet have access to the language necessary to express frustration or even awe at their newfound skills. This is a recipe for tantrums, a common sight in this age group.
“There’s a word for this in psychology,” Kazdin explains. “Normal.”
With all of the cognitive and physical development going on at this age, it makes sense there would be some fiery outbursts. How we respond to such outbursts, apparently, can have a huge effect on the frequency of their occurrence.
Rather than labeling this stage with negative terms that go way beyond “terrible,” consider ditching the directives and offering the child a choice instead.
According to Kazdin, using directives with young children is utterly ineffective. “Instead of saying, ‘Get your coat on, we’re leaving,’ with finger pointed, ask the child if she wants to wear the red coat or the green sweater,” he claims.
“The perception of choice is just as effective as an actual choice,” he explains.
Child psychology expert Alicia F. Lieberman used to open book talks about her seminal work, The Emotional Life of the Toddler with discussions on the terrible twos, but has since moved away from using the term.
“I think the more we move away from that term, the better off we are,” she says. “There is more of an awareness that when we say ‘the terrible twos’ we’re really talking about the adult experience rather than the child’s.”
This stage can suck for parents for a lot of reasons, causing us to worry they’ll accidentally put their finger in a light socket, knock over a plant, or fall to the floor screaming in public, but none of these things make the child inherently terrible.
They are developmentally normal responses to the difficult challenge of growing into the world as a mobile, verbal beings. Just because it’s challenging does not need to lead us towards pathologizing and labeling our children as inherently awful, and doing so could cause both more tantrums and more long-term damage.
Practice 3: Time out!
Like many of you, I’m sure, the time-out was a common consequence in our household when my daughter was younger.
Much earlier in my career as an educator, I even used a version of it in middle school, where I’d keep a desk pointed towards a corner of the room and have the occasional behavior problem sit to “think about” what they had done, often with some sort of written reflection tool to complete as they considered alternate choices they could have made.
It turns out, much research has shown this practice can do more harm than good in the long run, and we should reconsider using it in both educational and parenting contexts.
Instead, isolating them is yet another form of shame-based punishment. Since they aren’t able to make a connection between what they should have or could have done better, putting them in a time out is simply another way of telling them they’re bad, and deserve to be removed from others as a result.
“When a child misbehaves intentionally — no reasonable adult would punish a child for ignorance or a mistake —” Matthews writes, “they’re not feeling very good about themselves anyway. The isolation of a timeout just confirms that negative self-image.”
Instead, parents should learn to regulate their own emotions, and perhaps give themselves some time to breathe, reflect and remove themselves from the trigger of the inappropriate behavior of the child. This could help the parent formulate a more appropriate solution to the problem, with an action more directly associated with teaching the child better behavior, rather than reinforcing the message that they are inherently bad.
The problem, according to Vanessa Lapointe, author of Discipline Without Damage, is that adults do not recognize “bad” behavior as merely age-appropriate, but rather “the behavior of upset children is often viewed by adults as willful or naughty.”
Rather than responding with a time-out or other shame-based discipline tactics, the adult needs to respond with compassion and understanding what lies beneath the behavior is not an inherently evil child, but rather a dysregulated brain, one still developing the ability to process and deal with strong emotions.
Our children need our calm, focused attention to help them through the onslaught of such new experiences, which will in turn help lead to self-regulation.
Effectively parenting children, including compassionately dealing with parts of ourselves that carry the overwhelming, confusing burdens of childhood, starts with recognizing even a toddler as an autonomous human being with emotions.
Those emotions are real and trying to “fix” them, whether through trying to instill fears, labeling a two-year-old “terrible,” or dealing with them through shame-based isolation does not help our children, or inner children, develop skills for navigating a difficult and confusing world.