3 More Ways to “Parent” Less, and Parent Better

This is actually pretty dangerous.

This is actually pretty dangerous.

As I described in my prior post, I believe that much of what is typically done in the name of parenting today stifles our children’s autonomy.

Here are some more hallmarks of mainstream parenting, and what the research suggests you should do instead if you want capable, self-confident kids.

1. Directing Play

Why parents do it.

We care about the safety of our children. Nobody wants to usher our child through a visit to the emergency room after a trip to the playground. So we stay close and keep an eye on them. And then we might throw out a cautionary “be careful” once in a while.

Before you know it, some parents are giving specific directions about how the play equipment should be used, and who was next on the toy, and so on.

I’ve overheard one mother tell her daughter that the odd contraption in one park was meant only for walking across–balance-beam style–not as a teeter-totter. In fact children had been  using easily it for both. I watched a grandmother at a birthday party at a park, as she micromanaged a small horde of 3- to 7-year-olds (who were largely ignoring her) with guidance to go up now, now go across, now slide down.

In park after park, I see dozens of parents keeping within inches of their tots, so that the kids probably barely trust themselves. These parents might even shoot me the stink eye if I casually watch my son from a distant park bench, like our parents and grandparents used to.

What works better for kids.

Play is the work of children. It is how they learn about their world. The play is the teacher, not a grown up.

Children need to learn how to negotiate environments on their own. They need small but increasing amounts of risk in their play in order to learn risk assessment. Often in our attempts to keep our children safe, we expose them to a greater risk of harm. Letting them do risky things teaches them how to avoid injury. Safety nets don’t teach children how to be safe.

…constraints on children’s freedom to play have now been criticized by several researchers as a sad result of the safety-obsession in today’s western societies that in the end results in less physically fit children with low motor control and low risk mastery. – Ellen Beate Hansen Sandseter

Hollering out “be careful” distracts a child who is concentrating on proper balance, or foot placement, or which hand comes next on the rungs. It is a vague but alarming exhortation, and often serves simply to make someone paranoid rather than more alert. Chances are pretty good that child was already being careful.

If you do feel your child is being careless, it is clearer to say something specific but without an order. “Look around, look at where your feet are. Do you feel safe?” Or, “Someone is about to come down the slide.” Or better yet, say nothing. These things have a way of working out without our help. Children can be amazingly agile and make good physical choices, if they actually get lots of practice working through physical environments on their own. And it’s exciting to watch them find new ways to play with the equipment–that’s creativity. That’s invention.

Directing play often includes sorting out conflict for children, such as whose turn it is, or who had what toy first. Here’s another opportunity to let kids learn conflict resolution on their own. The true way to teach children conflict resolution is through modelling it yourself, not imposing it upon your kids. They need a chance to practice this too, and to see what works best among their peers. They may come up with solutions you hadn’t even thought of. And just because a new kid just showed up to play on the swing your kid is on, it is not a good reason to take your child off right away. Each kid deserves a decent length of turn.

So step back at the playground or play date. Let your children work things out. Maybe spot them from time to time, if they are trying something that truly makes you really nervous. Prevent them from hurting each other, and maybe sportscast when things get tense. But otherwise simply observe and enjoy.

2. Forcing “Sorry”, “Thank You”, and “Please”

Why parents do it.

We think our kids won’t become civilized, courteous adults unless we train them to apologize, and to say please and thank you.

We sometimes feel compelled to do this, because we are embarrassed around other parents when our kids don’t say nice things.

One sunny afternoon, my 3-year-old son was playing with another boy his age. The other boy accidentally hit him on the head with a plastic toy. My son cried a bit but was not visibly injured. I comforted my son.

The other boy’s father urged his son to say he was sorry. He was quite stern and authoritarian in his manner. When the youngster refused, he was marched inside for a “time out”.

And there was my son, ignored and out of a play buddy. He got punished too—for not getting an apology. I doubt that the other child learned from this experience how to feel and show empathy for others.

What works better for kids.

The best way to teach our kids how to be polite and considerate is to model the behavior ourselves in our daily lives. Parents saying these kind words to each other and to their children teach the kids far better than it they make the words compulsory. Have you ever said you were sorry to your child? I hope so; we all make mistakes.

Forcing a child to say he is sorry, when he is not, teaches him to lie about his feelings. Worse, he learns that if you hurt someone, all you have to do is say you’re sorry and the victim can then be forgotten. That does not build empathy: it is a shortcut to avoiding it. What I see time and time again is a child hurting another, accidentally or not, then barking a perfunctory “Sorry”, and going back to his business.

Perhaps you’ve met parents who force their children to apologize after doing something hurtful or mean. (“Can you say you’re sorry?”) Now, what’s going on here? Do the parents assume that making children speak this sentence will magically produce in them the feeling of being sorry, despite all evidence to the contrary? Or, worse, do they not even care whether the child really is sorry because sincerity is irrelevant and all that matters is the act of uttering the appropriate words? Compulsory apologies mostly train children to say things they don’t mean – that is, to lie. Alfie Kohn

If a child is too young to truly understand how she has hurt someone, take a moment to apologize on her behalf. Be sure that your child hears what harm has been caused. “I am sorry that Lisa kicked you. That must have hurt your leg. I hope you are okay.” Help your child begin to understand how her actions affect others. Apologies are extraordinarily complex, and take years to understand.

In general, as children become more self-aware, are more concerned about what others think of them, and are increasingly able to take into account intentions and motives, their production and perception of apologies become more sophisticated. Although even kindergarten children have been found to have a basic understanding of responsibility and its consequences (e.g. if wrongdoing is controllable it elicits anger) and to tailor excuses and justifications to fit different types of wrongdoing, the following aspects of apologies have been found to increase with age: making amends; externalizing causes for a wrongdoing; providing more elaborate apologies ; being more sensitive to potential anger, and offering fewer controllable causes as excuses. – A. J. Meier

Likewise, say please and thank you on behalf of your child when others are involved. That way you don’t feel awkward in that social situation, and your child is seeing the proper response modeled for her.

Don’t worry–children do learn the social niceties without being badgered. And then they really mean it (most of the time).

3. Forcing Hugs and Kisses

Why parents do it.

My son often refuses to hug his grandmother goodbye. It hurts her feelings. I really feel for her. It’s so tempting to urge him to hug her before we walk out the door.

What works better for kids.

But I won’t. It’s his body. If I cajole him into hugging or kissing my mom, I have put him into a compromised position.

In being coerced to kiss or cuddle someone they don’t want to, that child is being told that how they feel, what they want to do with their own bodies, doesn’t really matter. That an adult’s wishes and sensibilities matter more…If a child gets used to being told their bodies aren’t their own, or have no right of refusal, even in something as innocent as kissing grandma, when or if there is malintent from another adult they may not feel strong enough to say no. –

Once your child gets the lesson that she must force visible signs of affection for a grown up, it will be far easier for a “tricky” person to ask the same of her when you are not around. So please don’t teach her she has to hug or kiss on command. By all means show her loving affection and accept it from her, but let her decide when and how she gives it. It how she first learns that she deserves to withhold her consent.


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