Parenting mistakes you should avoid at all costs

Let's face it — parenting is hard. Mistakes are inevitable. Luckily, most of them can be fixed with time and attention. Some parenting mistakes have a deeper impact on our kids than others, and so it's worth learning about how to shift our behaviour as soon as possible. I went to the experts to find out which parenting mistakes are the most important to avoid.

Failing to discipline your child

Sometimes you're just not in the mood to discipline your child. You may be tired or you may feel like you've already corrected your kid so many times it's falling on deaf ears. But it's important to take the time and energy for discipline, even when it's the last thing you want to do. Fern Weis, parent-teen relationship coach told me, "Parents want some peace and harmony. They don't want to be fighting and disciplining all the time, but they don't know another way to avoid the power struggles. Fearing their relentless child, they back off."

You may be temporarily relieved, but this will backfire in the long run. She continued, "This results in children who are running the show, and who are unintentionally given the kind of control they are not emotionally equipped to handle. They don't hear 'no' and learn that if they push back hard enough, they will get what they want (whether it is a thing, a privilege, or to be left alone). These children do not learn to self-regulate."

Failing to discipline your child will cause you a lot of headaches later, and it's not good for your child, either. So stick to your guns, and take the time to discipline your kid compassionately and firmly when they need it.

Trying to control your child

While you need to be consistent with discipline, it's important not to go too far in the other direction and try to control your kids, as it will lead to them acting out later on. Barbara E. Harvey, Executive Director of Parents, Teachers and Advocates, Inc, told me, "Control is a mistake because eventually in order for a person to be free they must rebel. In the short-term children may submit and it is easier for the parent. However the child is not learning to make decisions for themselves."

When you try to control your child, you're also missing an opportunity teach them they can trust you. Harvey continued, "Nor are they building a sense of learning to trust. In the long term the parent is setting up a oppositional pattern where, in order to grow and stretch their wings, children have to rebel."

Aricia Shaffer, former therapist and parenting coach, agreed. She told me, "The first mistake is believing you have control over your kids. If you've ever tried to force kids to hurry, to eat their breakfast or fall asleep, you're familiar with this fact, yet some parents choose to try to fight it. When you fight it, you get frustrated parents and out of control behavior from kids."

Giving your child a negative label

One of the worst things you can do is to give your child a negative label, because they may carry it with them for the rest of their life. Jill Whitney, licensed marriage and family therapist, told me, "Kids internalize what they're told about themselves. What parents say becomes their internal template, the voice they hear inside their head — often for their whole lives."

If your kid is doing something that drives you crazy, instead of making a comment about them as a person, Whitney suggests, "Focus on the behavior that's the problem. This room is a mess. You need to pick up your toys before dinnertime. It's time to stop playing and get your homework done. This is far more specific; the child knows what he can do to correct the situation. This approach indicates that the problem is related to a specific situation, not something permanent about your child."

She also recommended, "On the flip side, do give your child positive labels when your child displays traits you want to encourage. You're a kind person. You're so persistent. When you put your mind to it, you can figure anything out. These are traits you want your child to perceive as an inherent part of himself."

Avoiding the birds and the bees

While it may be uncomfortable to talk to your children about sex, it's better for you to address it than to have your kids learn about it elsewhere. Whitney told me, "When kids ask something about sex, say, 'What does sex mean?' or 'How did the baby get in there?' parents may panic and avoid the question. That gets you off the hook for the moment, but it has unhelpful fallout."

When this happens, Whitney told me, "Your child doesn't get the information she needs. More important, she learns that she can't turn to you when she has those sorts of questions. She'll seek information from peers and the internet — and you know how unreliable those can be. Even worse, she may come to feel that there's something wrong with her for even asking. That creates shame around sexuality that can last her whole life."

Instead, Whitney recommended, "It's much better to take a deep breath and answer questions about bodies and sex whenever they come up, just like you'd answer questions about anything else. Children are capable of hearing the basics about anatomy and reproduction even at an early age. They're just facts about the world, like everything else kids are trying to take in. And your responsiveness establishes you as a reliable resource on the topic, which will be a huge help when kids approach puberty and the teen years."

Not being consistent with your expectations

One of the hardest — and most important — things you can do as a parent is be consistent with your expectations. Weis told me, "Children thrive with limits and boundaries (although they will vehemently insist that they don't need them). Inconsistency teaches them that their parents' words are essentially meaningless."

Consistency with boundaries is also paramount. Weis continued, "The same is true for boundaries that are set, but not enforced. Unless parents are 100% committed to enforcing them, it's better not to set the boundary at all. Let's use laundry as an example. I will only wash clothing that is in the hamper. If it's on the floor, I will assume it's clean and leave it there. Here is where mom or dad has to get past their need for a clean room, and be prepared to leave the clothes on the floor. If not, don't make this an issue. Set a boundary for something on which you can follow through."

Not listening to your child

When you listen to your child, are you truly listening, or are you trying to find something to fix or solve? Weis told me it's essential to listen with an open mind. She told me in our interview, "Creating a trusting relationship begins with truly listening to your child. The relationship is the basis for cooperation, respect, problem-solving and responsibility. When parents only listen to respond (to fix, critique, teach, and solve), their child knows that he is not truly being heard and will shut down."

Instead of listening to fix your child's problem, Weis suggested, "Careful listening, acknowledging feelings, and allowing children to vent (whether you agree with their feelings or not), allows them to process their emotions, and to develop a healthy attachment. I ask parents to remember that the kind of listening they look for in a friend is just what their children need from them."

Not empathizing with your child

When a tough situation comes up, one of the most powerful things you can do is to take time to empathize before you react. Shaffer told me, "My number one tip — before you interact with your child, put yourself in their shoes. If they are crying and upset, frustrated or angry — they aren't trying to make your life harder. They are having a really rough time and they don't have the skills to know how to cope with it."

Shaffer suggested you think about how you would feel if you were in your child's position. She continued, "If you had a meltdown in aisle 7 of the grocery store, would you want someone to really lay into you and let you have it? Would you want them to bribe you with ice cream or a candy bar? Or would you want them to sit down next to you and rub your back and tell you, 'It's okay. Take your time.'?"

Using punishment as your main form of discipline

It is important to discipline your child, but that doesn't necessarily mean you need to punish them. Harvey told me, "In this country we have mistakenly equated punishment with discipline. As a result parents are more focused on looking for and punishing misbehavior rather than giving children the tools they need to develop self-control."

The focus of discipline shouldn't be getting your child to do what you want, but instead, helping them regulate their own behavior. Harvey added, "Self-control is about learning to recognize the rules and choosing to obey them because it is the right thing to do. It is about choosing the right behavior because it is right. Parents who focus more on punishing bad behavior rather than encouraging children to stop, think, and make a choice, force children to instead look at the world and what they do based on whether or not this will get them into trouble."

This won't help you out now, and your children won't develop the skills they need later, either. Harvey said, "In the short-term, it causes fear and uncertainty in children. In the long-term, it teaches kids to look at life in terms of what they can get away with."

Telling your kids what to do rather than showing them

Kids are very perceptive, and they will know if you are "walking your talk" or not. If you tell your kids to do something, you'd better be doing it as well, and vice-versa. Harvey told me, "According to brain development experts, children will retain 85 percent of what they observe their parents doing and only 15 percent of what they say as they enter adulthood."

This holds true even for very young children. Harvey told me, "As an early childhood expert I can tell you, children are keen observers and spend most of their time not only watching, but also figuring out what to do and not do based on what they see. They interact with the world based on what they see. In the short-term, children will use what they see to figure out and interpret how the world works. In the long-term they may stumble and have a hard time if what they observed is either detrimental or extremely different than most folks' reality."

What should you do to be a good parent?

In addition to asking the experts about the biggest parenting mistakes, I also found out what they thought you should do when raising kids. Weis told me her number one piece of advice: "Remember what kind of person you want your child to be 15 years from now."

Once you've done that, "Then ask yourself if what you are about to do or say (or have just said or done) is contributing to that vision. If not, it's time to rethink your approach. Give your child what he needs, not what feels easier or makes you feel better. Always keep the vision in mind."

Whitney suggested, "Name feelings — your child's, and your own. Kids learn emotional self-regulation from having it modeled for them and developing language that helps them understand their experiences. Hearing the names of feelings while they're having them helps them integrate their experience, which facilitates learning to tolerate emotion and control behavior."

Wondering what that looks like in real life? Whitney gave this example: "When your toddler has a meltdown in the grocery store, say something like 'I see you're frustrated because I won't buy you candy.' Or if he's grumpy, say 'I know you're disappointed that you didn't get to play with Jordan today.' You validate his feelings, give them a name, and stay calm, and in time he'll learn to do the same."