Never show your kids weakness … and other parenting myths, debunked

Is screen time really that bad? Should you swear in front of your kids? And is it possible to undo your mistakes? Experts tackle the big parenting questions of our time

Don’t post pictures of your children online

FALSE There’s a difference, says the psychotherapist Stella O’Malley, author of What Your Teen Is Trying to Tell You, between creating interesting content, and being an excessive over-poster – people who are posting almost every day, rather than just on special occasions or when something funny or cute is going on.

“It’s become a universal truth that it’s a bad thing to post pictures of your children online: but I did it, and I don’t regret it. The important thing is to be sensitive, respectful and to appreciate that your child will one day grow up and have their own ideas.” Always remember that your child isn’t just an extension of you – some parents forget that at times, says O’Malley.

Parenting Myths illo Inside 1. For Saturday mag 23rd Sept

Going from none to one is harder than one to more

FALSE “You have to learn to be a parent all over again when you go from one child to two,” says Philippa Perry, psychotherapist and author of The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read.

Key to making the transition work, she says, is to ensure the experience of the new baby’s arrival is as fun and positive as possible for your older child – and keep their needs and perspective at the front of your mind.

Don’t negate their feelings: don’t tell the older child off for being jealous, and don’t say, “You’ve got to be a big girl/boy now.” Involve your older child in caring for the new baby, but don’t make it seem like a chore they may not want to do.

A good parent never shouts

FALSE “It’s not possible to be calm all the time: we get tired and yell at the children,” says Iben Dissing Sandahl, co-author of The Danish Way of Parenting and author of The Danish Way of Raising Teens. The important thing is what we do afterwards. “When you calm down, you go back to the child and you say, ‘I’m sorry – I shouldn’t have yelled at you.’ Explain that you’re not perfect but recognise it’s not OK, and you’re trying to do better.” Also: think about what triggered the outburst, and work out how to stop it happening another time.

If you have more than one, having one-on-one time with your kids is important

TRUE “When you have one-on-one time with your child, you see them blossom,” says Sandahl. “It can be a walk, a picnic, an evening in – it doesn’t have to be a big trip. Having one-on-one time opens up a new depth to your relationship.” With teens, one-on-one time can give them the space to discuss worries, but don’t interrogate them or they’ll probably shut down.

A baby doesn’t have to change your life

FALSE “It changes you physically and psychologically,” says NCT postnatal practitioner Anna Hammond. “It changes your relationships and your social life. Newborns need safety, food, warmth and relationships in order to survive. But as time passes – certainly from about three months – you should be able to carve out a bit of time to get some of the old you back. What you do will depend on what matters most to you: think about what was important to you before, that you want to bring back into your life. It might be going out for a drink with friends; it might be playing music; it might be going out for a walk on your own.”

It’s never too late to undo parenting mistakes

TRUE It’s never too late to try to repair a mistake, says Perry, and it’s better to attempt to do something than to choose to do nothing, even if the roots of a problem stretch back years. But this myth hints at a scary truism, which is that the younger the child, the more far-reaching the parenting. “Birth to five, and especially birth to two, is a crucial time,” she says. “When you’re newly born you’re at your most formative, and if your parents are affectionate and reliable, you develop a sense of trust in the world. Of course, five to 65 is also important, which is why if you feel with hindsight you’ve done something that you now regret, you need to talk about it. Making mistakes isn’t as bad as not trying to repair them.”

Screen time is bad for your kids

FALSE It’s not screen time per se that’s bad, says Jeremy Todd, chief executive of support charity Family Lives. What is bad is if screens are used as a pacifier (with small kids) or are about disengagement from what’s happening around them (with teens). “Screen time leads to some of the biggest rows between older children and their parents. It’s tricky, because it wasn’t part of our youth – but we need to understand what our kids are doing online.”

Be aware that adults often display the exact digital behaviour they caution their kids against.

Try coming up with a family agreement everyone has bought into – that, for example, no one will bring their phone to the table at mealtimes. And work at understanding your child’s relationship with the digital world. “If your child has been in their room for five hours, ask them what they’ve been up to – in a nonthreatening way, of course,” Todd suggests.

Never swear in front of your kids

TRUE Sandahl says swearing encourages a reduction in vocabulary. “‘Fuck’ is a catch-all word: but we’ve got a beautiful language, and we have so many words to express what we feel,” she says.

In the real world, of course, we all swear occasionally: and, if you do, the important thing, says Sandahl, is to own it, to maybe laugh about it, to explain why you’re feeling frustrated, but not to be shameful or point a finger at yourself. “Don’t say, ‘I’m so bad – I’m so wrong to do that,’” she says. “Instead, be honest about the fact that you overreacted; ask your child what better word you could have used instead.”

Good parents are selfless

FALSE “That’s a martyr, not a parent,” says Perry. Of course, she’s not recommending selfishness, because often a child’s needs have to come first. But own your reality, she says. “When you’re freezing in the playground and your child is saying, ‘Again, again’, don’t say we need to go because it’s time for lunch (unless it is). Say: ‘We are going in five minutes because I’m cold and tired.’ Kids relate to that – they know how it feels. And truth-telling is great role modelling.” Todd agrees: parents who overprioritise their children’s needs neglect their own. “It can lead to resentment and unhappiness in the couple’s relationship,” he says. “Children thrive where their parents are happy.”

You have to be on the same page to co-parent

FALSE “You’re never going to be able to agree the whole time with your ex-partner on how to parent,” says Todd. “What you need is to agree on a general approach; for example, that you won’t contradict one another. That way you’ll create a level of security for your children, and they won’t play you off against one another.” The important thing isn’t having the same point of view; it’s respecting one another’s point of view.

Doctors know best

FALSE Medics know best about a condition, but when it comes to the whole child, parents are the experts. “We’re right to have respect for experts, but they are only expert in a certain area,” says Sandahl. Parents, she says, have “an unconscious gut feeling that helps us”, and we should listen to it and act on it.

Parenting Myths illo Inside 3. For Saturday mag 23rd Sept

Your kid needs a wide and varied diet

TRUE But the best way forward, says Sandahl, is simply to provide plenty of choice, and to encourage curiosity around food. “Serve small bowls of carrots, tomatoes, and highlight the colours, talk about the taste.” Picky eating often triggers a response in parents that’s to do with their own upbringing and relationship to food, so make sure you’re aware of that. “Let children do things at their own pace.”

Many parents use incentives to get their child to eat – “If you eat your greens you can have some ice-cream,” says Sandahl – but be aware that you don’t want your child to think that some food is “better” than other food. You want them to know that the vegetables are as good as the sweet food. “I’d concentrate on the atmosphere round the table more than how much food is being consumed,” says Sandahl. “The important thing at mealtimes is sharing food and having a good time together.”

Routine isn’t the be-all and end-all

TRUE “Broadly speaking, routine is good because it creates boundaries, consistency and helps establish expectations,” says Todd. “But routine falls down if it becomes inflexible. As a parent, you need to be prepared to negotiate. Context matters, and role modelling being flexible is also important.”

You have to tell your kids how to behave

TRUE You have to tell them, but, says Sandahl, you also have to show them. “It’s important to be clear about values: how you talk to others, how you’re a good friend. But it’s also about showing them those values in practice, and putting it into words in an affirmative way: ‘When I saw you help that child there it made me feel so happy; it’s so good to help others’.” We have to practise what we preach – role model what you want them to be, and to do.

You can train your baby to sleep when you want them to

FALSE and TRUE A newborn will sleep when they need to, but as a baby gets a bit older, parents can recognise the clues and cues that can lead to sleep. “Many parents find they can’t ‘train’ a baby, but they can encourage them to sleep, for example with a bedtime routine,” says Hammond.

What about controlled crying? This is an area that divides experts – and parents. On the one hand, says Hammond, leaving a young baby to cry for prolonged periods could be stressful for them. On the other hand, a certain amount of gentle training can be helpful, says health visitor Mandy Gurney, founder of Millpond Children’s Sleep Clinic.

The baby’s age is important, she says: under 10 weeks, your best bet is to concentrate on encouraging them to understand the difference between night and day (she suggests taking them out for afternoon walks). With an older baby, she suggests a responsive technique, where parents reduce the amount of “help” they give their baby to get off to sleep. “Start by rocking the baby to sleep; then, over time, reduce the rocking. Move towards putting them down in their cot with cuddles and pats, and gradually reduce the patting.” It’s about responding to your baby’s needs, she says.

Ultimately, most experts agree that if you feel you’re not coping, it’s important to know you can leave your baby in a safe space and give yourself a few minutes.

Stick to your ground and don’t show weakness

FALSE “On the one hand there’s rigidity and on the other there’s chaos. What you want is the middle ground, where you’re both strong and flexible,” says Perry. “If you’re inflexible, you’re teaching your children to be rigid and inflexible.” The best way to be as a parent, she says, is “real”. Real people sometimes waver and sometimes change their minds.

Kids need to have a go at as many things as possible, to find out what they like

FALSE “It sounds good on paper, doesn’t it? Give them a taste of everything,” says O’Malley. “And if it can happen without stress, it’s great. But, often, the child who’s doing everything is overscheduled and under pressure.” Filling a child’s diary can be very satisfying for a parent, she says – but look at it from the kid’s point of view. Also, 21st-century life is very busy. Children need to learn to say no sometimes – they can’t do everything.

Parenting Myths illo Inside 2. For Saturday mag 23rd Sept

If there are issues at school, see the teacher straight away

FALSE “We’ve taught children to look to the nearest adult – and, in some ways, that’s getting them to give their power away,” says O’Malley. “If there’s conflict at school, see if they can solve it by themselves – if not, then see the teacher.”

The vital thing your child needs to be able to do, she says, is gauge whether they’re out of their depth, or whether they can try to deal with the issue themselves. And there are some difficulties – unwanted sexual attention, for example – where a child should know immediately that they need the help of a parent or carer. In many other circumstances, though, teenagers have to learn to deal with problems. If they don’t get experience in doing that, they’ll never learn how to.

If your child seems to have a problem with learning or socialising, get a diagnosis

TRUE and FALSE “Sometimes a child has serious problems and needs professional help – early intervention can be the defining factor that gets the help a child needs,” says O’Malley. “But sometimes labelling a child can be a burden: they can become the label. The other thing you have to think is: will getting a diagnosis actually help? Sometimes people chase a diagnosis, but then all it does is tell you what you know already, without advantaging the child.” The crucial thing, she says, is not to overemphasise the diagnosis so it becomes the child’s persona.

Parenting stops when your children become adults

FALSE “You might not have to tie their shoelaces any more, but your opinion still matters – and how,” says Perry. “Never underestimate how much your word, your approval or your disapproval holds sway with your adult children.” Be aware of your power and use it wisely. “Don’t be a dick – be nice,” says Perry. “And if you’re giving your child feedback or an opinion, say why you feel as you do – don’t just do the catch-all about how wonderful they are; say why they’re wonderful.”


Joanna Moorhead

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
How to bully-proof your kids for life
Arm your kids with the right tools, and you’ll empower them against bullies – and stop them becoming one themselves

Joanna Moorhead

19, Mar, 2022 @7:00 AM

Article image
‘I’m terrified it might be my last chance’: the rise of the pre-baby ‘stag do’
‘Dad dos’, or ‘Dadchelor parties’ – one last blow out for a father-to-be – are on the up. Are they just an excuse for a bender, or a crucial celebration for the modern, hands-on father?

Ed Cumming

29, Oct, 2021 @10:00 AM

Article image
My 13-year-old son is being exposed to porn – how can I protect him? | Ask Annalisa Barbieri
Not being pro- or anti-porn is the best stance to have for young people, so you don’t encourage them, nor shame them

Annalisa Barbieri

27, May, 2022 @1:00 PM

Article image
I fear my grandson is being emotionally and physically damaged by father’s negative behaviour | Ask Annalisa Barbieri
Your response very much depends on how seriously at risk you think the child is

Annalisa Barbieri

17, Jun, 2022 @1:00 PM

Article image
You be the judge grandparents’ special: should my parents stop feeding my kids food that I’ve banned?
Orlaith is raising her kids to make healthy choices, but her parents give the grandkids free rein of the biscuit tin. Now you decide: should the children be living la dolce vita?

Interviews by Georgina Lawton

16, Nov, 2023 @11:00 AM

Article image
Authoritarian, freewheeler or data wonk – what type of parent are you?
Is your kids’ bedtime data-led or boundary-free? Is the naughty step unused or well worn? Our guide decodes modern parenting

Rhiannon Evans

21, Oct, 2022 @10:00 AM

Article image
What can we do to stop our son’s post-nursery meltdowns?| Ask Annalisa Barbieri
You think he is being unreasonable; he probably thinks the same of you. But at his young age he doesn’t know how to deal with his feelings

Annalisa Barbieri

05, May, 2023 @1:30 PM

Article image
I feel sickened with myself for shouting at my child. Please help | Ask Annalisa Barbieri
You say you’d never hurt your children, but you do seem scared of losing control

Annalisa Barbieri

29, Sep, 2023 @2:03 PM

Article image
‘Mummy, when can I wear makeup?’ How to talk to kids about body image
Start the discussions early, examine your own beliefs and take their questions seriously. Experts on the best way to talk to children and teenagers about how they look

Anita Bhagwandas

20, Oct, 2023 @10:00 AM

Article image
Is my son, 14, a gaming addict? He spends all his time online in his room | Annalisa Barbieri
Computer games may be filling a void left by friendships that fell away over lockdown

Annalisa Barbieri

24, Sep, 2021 @2:30 PM