Child therapist Natasha Daniels, LCSW, was in session with a couple who proudly proclaimed, “Oh no, we never tell our son he’s done a good job.” That’s because, they told Daniels, they didn’t want to fill their son with empty praise.
They weren’t the only ones. Client after client talked about intentionally not praising their kids. Daniels finally found the source of the advice: a popular parenting book.
“After reading that parenting book, I found myself paralyzed for days, berating myself for ‘incorrectly’ wording my praise and potentially harming my child,” Daniels said. “The scariest part is that I found myself holding back praise in fear I was doing it ‘wrong.’”
If a therapist who specializes in kids has this experience, it’s understandable that other parents would get so confused and overwhelmed that they stop praising their kids altogether. Which is why this advice is especially dangerous.
According to Daniels, “Praise is such a crucial component to a child’s self-image, self-efficacy and self-worth.”
There are plenty of examples of unhelpful, even terrible advice for raising your kids. Below other experts share the worst parenting advice they’ve ever heard or come across.
Set strict academic standards. Many parents set expectations, such as: “I expect all A’s this semester; there is no reason why that should not happen,” said Mia Gold-Rosenberg, LMSW, a child and family psychotherapist practicing as an associate at the group practice of Liz Morrison Therapy in New York City.
For instance, she was working with a client whose parents had these exact expectations—advice they received from other parents at their highly competitive school.
The problem with this advice is that rigid, sky-high expectations can spark all sorts of mental health issues, including stress, anxiety, lower self-esteem and symptoms of depression, said Gold-Rosenberg. “Children should know that parents expect them to try their best, and if their best is not an “A,” it is OK.”
Sleep when baby sleeps. “This piece of advice drives me nuts for a couple of different reasons,” said Carla Naumburg, Ph.D, a parent coach and author of several books on mindfulness and parenting. For starters, sometimes your baby mostly sleeps in the car—like Naumburg’s did. Second, it’s often hard to drop everything and turn your brain off, especially during the day. Third, kids’ naps are unpredictable. “[I]t’s not always helpful to fall asleep only to be awakened 12 minutes later by a screaming kiddo.”
Naumburg also noted that there’s a deeper, more insidious issue with this advice. “The underlying message is that a parent’s self-care should be squeezed into the nooks and crannies left over once all of the baby’s needs have been met.” It’s vital for parents to find the space to meet their own needs, along with their child’s.
Naumburg stressed the importance of thinking creatively: Maybe you look into sleep training your child. Maybe you let your kids watch an extra show in the morning. Maybe you trade nights with a friend by each hosting a sleepover. Maybe you ask your parents or other loved ones to help out. Maybe you lower your standards and let go of some tasks—like laundry or dishes.
“It isn’t easy—it really, really isn’t easy—but it all starts with accepting that it’s OK to make [your] sleep a priority, too,” Naumburg said. It’s OK to make your needs a priority.
Don’t be your kids’ friend. Psychologist John Duffy, Ph.D, has heard this from both colleagues and his parent clients. “The problem is that parents tend to over-correct in the wrong direction, and are not even friend-ly with their children.”
They tend to cultivate an adversarial relationship with their kids as they become adolescents, said Duffy, author of the book The Available Parent: Expert Advice for Raising Successful and Resilient Teens and Tweens. He referred to it as “gotcha” parenting, where parents “track phones and grade portals, in an apparent attempt to ‘catch’ their children doing the wrong thing, or behaving in a deceptive manner.”
Instead, Duffy suggested being open and curious; having an attitude of friendliness; and spending time connecting with your kids. For instance, he works with a family in which both parents (who are actually divorced) talk openly with their teenagers about everything from drugs to grades to sex to social issues. Consequently, their kids feel comfortable talking to them about these tough topics.
Be consistent. There’s a prevailing belief that parents must be perfectly consistent in their responses and reactions in order to be effective, said Naumburg, who also pens the popular Psych Central blog Mindful Parenting. “The reality of our crazy lives often doesn’t allow for it.”
Naumburg isn’t suggesting that parents act erratically, flying by the seat of their pants and having different, unpredictable reactions. Because that’s confusing (and unhealthy) for kids.
But it’s OK to change your mind. It’s OK to change your plans. The key is to be clear about your values and what matters to you, she said. The key is to remain calm and think through what is happening or what your child is asking, she said. The key is to make thoughtful, intentional decisions.
“In addition, you can always explain to your child why you changed your mind [or why you’re making an exception to the rule], and when you do that, you’re modeling thoughtful responses…” You’re also teaching your kids to use good judgment, “rather than having a knee-jerk reversion to a rule.”
Naumburg shared this example: You have a rule about no screens in the morning and during meals. But you make exceptions when your child isn’t feeling well; there’s something special on, like the Super Bowl; or you have special guests you’d like to focus on. You might value consistent limits, she said, but you also value responding to your kids’ and your own needs in special situations.
Make sure your kids fear you. Duffy also has heard this advice from a colleague and many, many parents. “The idea is that the fear will keep a child behaviorally in-line,” he said. However, fear isn’t helpful. For instance, if your kids fear you, when they’re struggling or really in trouble, they might not come to you to discuss it. They’ll be too afraid of your reaction—of being punished, of being yelled at, of hearing “I told you so…”
Or when your kids don’t have you by their side to fear, they might not make great decisions on their own (because fear has been their compass, and without it, they’re lost).
Plus, today, fear doesn’t work on most kids, as it might’ve worked a generation ago, Duffy said. Because today’s kids “ask questions, and openly question authority. They want things to make sense, instead of being just told what to do.”
What’s more helpful is to partner with your kids when it comes to discipline, chores and homework, he said. “This fosters a connection between you, and teaches your child to collaborate and cooperate. There is no lose here.” In fact, it’s pretty valuable parenting advice.