Now that we have ourselves become parents, we think and analyze what other parents do wrong, so that we try to avoid making the same mistakes with our children. All parents fall short from time to time, but some parental mistakes are worse than others and can cause long-term consequences.
Parents of young children
Separating the siblings
I’m not talking only about schools and camps where children are grouped by age and where siblings spend their entire days separated from their parents and from each other. Some parents keep their children separate even after school or during weekends and vacations: one child goes with Daddy and the other child goes with Mommy. Activities arranged by parents often result in different schedules for each sibling, which disrupts the family time even more. In many families young siblings sleep in different rooms. Other families send older children away to stay with the grandparents when a new baby is born. All these things facilitate sibling separation.
Why is this a mistake? It prevents siblings from bonding with both of their parents and with each other. Siblings get used to doing things separately and eventually grow apart and distant from each other and from the parent with whom they didn’t get to spend as much time as with the other parent. Sending children away during significant changes in the family’s life shows them that their parents don’t trust them and that they are not regarded as part of the family. I believe that families – parents and all their children – should spend as much time together as they can, and that all children should participate in the family life.
Doing what’s convenient for the parent regardless of whether it’s good for the child
Of course, all parents need a break, and it’s perfectly fine to occasionally leave the child with another caregiver so that the parents can have some quiet time. It’s fine for us as parents to seek convenience – and we all do – but there is a fine line. We need to ensure that we don’t cause long-term damage. I am familiar with many cases when parents send their young children away for extended periods of time (such as to overnight camps for a month, or to stay with relatives) or put them in after-school activities not because the child likes it, but solely because it makes things easier for parents. The parents may even believe that the child enjoys the experience, because children are good at pretending in order to make the grown-ups happy. However, deep down the child may feel sad and insecure.
Why is this a mistake? It traumatizes children when they are forced to do what they don’t want to. Even if, over time, the children get used to doing it and appear to like it, it is still a traumatic and emotionally crippling experience. It makes children distrust their parents and feel betrayed.
Not spending quality time with the children
Yes, we all need to work to support our families. Some parents may have to work overtime, or go on frequent business trips, and then come home too overwhelmed and exhausted to spend time with the kids. Some parents overwork not because they really have to, but because they choose to. They try to escape from noise at home or from family problems, or they simply love their work too much. It’s wonderful when someone enjoys working and it’s important to maintain and advance one’s professional ambitions, but it’s also important not to go into extremes about it. Do you want your children to remember you as an absentee parent? Will your beloved career matter to you or to anyone else in twenty or thirty years from now, or will your children matter more to you then? How will you feel when your children grow up and become strangers to you?
Things are expensive nowadays, and even living frugally requires that one or both parents work. I often hear parents making excuses for their busy work schedules by saying that they need to provide a suitable lifestyle to their children. However, define “suitable”? If it means putting [healthy] food on the table, you probably don’t need to work every day overtime for that. Or does it mean something more upscale, such as Disneyland vacations, fancy clothing, horseback riding lessons, or a hefty mortgage on a big house (so every child has a separate room) located in a wealthy town (so your children go to a prestigious school)?
Why is this a mistake? I assure you that while your children are young, they will be better off picnicking in a park with their Mommy and Daddy rather than going to Disneyland – if Mommy and Daddy have to work long hours to earn that vacation. I also assure you that even the best school will never replace spending time with and learning from parents. However, once children get older, they will – unfortunately – get used to these fancy things and will not mind that their parents are largely absent from their lives. It’s a lose-lose situation: your children will become strangers to you and, at the same time, they will expect you to keep satisfying their big appetites.
It’s not fancy clothing or expensive classes but the time spent with the parents that children should cherish and value the most.
Sheltering children from parental conflicts and family problems
Of course, if’ it’s a family violence situation, the children should be protected from witnessing it. What I’m talking about are much milder and more common situations, such as when parents argue with each other. Many parents think that they should only show their bright side to the children, that children should only see smiles and happy faces and should be sheltered from negative emotions that the adults sometimes experience. But this is not true.
Why is this a mistake? Children who only witness positive emotions get a distorted picture of human relationships. Parents who cope with sadness should not put on a fake smile and pretend to their children that everything is fine. Children will immediately sense that something is wrong and that their parents are lying to them. Kids are more resilient than most adults think, and, above all, kids appreciate honesty and truth. If you want your children to trust you and to share their problems with you, be honest with your children and share your emotions with them (thought, of course, you should do it in a calm and appropriate way). Children benefit from being exposed to a wide range of human emotions, including sadness, disappointment, and even anger. They especially benefit when they get to observe how their parents deal with and overcome these emotions. When children see their parents argue and then resolve the conflict peacefully and productively, they learn from their observations. One day, when they have their own families, they will be able to resolve their conflicts too.
Parents of adult children
One thing to note here is that, in my opinion and experience, what adult children need most from their parents is respect. Of course, children of any age need love too, but as sometimes happens with parents, they may love their adult children without respecting them.
Disrespect for the child’s parental authority
Let’s put it bluntly: the grandparents had their chance. Now, as their children become parents themselves, the grandparents should not try to compete with them. Your grandchildren have their Mommy and Daddy, not you, as their ultimate authority – and this is how it’s supposed to be. Of course, your grandchildren should obey you too – only not when you contradict their parents’ rules. Do not criticize your child and do not challenge their parental decisions in the presence of your grandchildren; if you want to do so, talk to your child in private. If your child asks you not to feed your grandchildren unhealthy food, do not; if you child asks you not to buy your grandchildren toys made with toxic materials, do not. In short, don’t do what your child asks you not to. You must uphold and respect your child’s rules with regards to your grandchildren – even if you disagree.
The worst thing you can do is to talk to your grandchildren behind their parents’ back, especially the things that contradict the family values. It’s even worse when you tell your grandchildren to lie to their parents and to keep secrets. “Don’t tell Mommy that we had chocolate for lunch” may sound innocent, but the reality is, the child learns to lie – with the grandparents’ encouragement and approval.
Why is this a mistake? The obvious reason is that challenging parental authority in the children’s presence humiliates parents and undermines their parenting efforts. Talking to your grandchildren behind their parents’ back and encouraging them to lie makes the kids distrust both you and their parents and disrupts the family unity. The child is confused: Mom and Dad say one thing, the grandparents say another thing. Don’t force your grandchild to pick sides.
Disrespect for your child’s decisions
Understandably, you want to protect your children, but if you continue to patronize and manipulate them with power or guilt trips when they grow up, it becomes toxic. Your children are adults now, and they make their own decisions and choices. Of course, if your child’s choice harms them or others in an obvious way (such as drug use or criminal activities), it’s your duty as parent to do everything possible to prevent the situation and to talk your child out of such choice. More commonly though, adult children make responsible lifestyle decisions such as how to parent, where to live, or where to work. If your adult children don’t depend on your help and financial support, it’s not about your decisions anymore – it’s about theirs. You may disapprove their choice because of your personal beliefs, but do not turn your back on your child just because you disapprove their lifestyle choices.
Why is this a mistake? Such behavior is utterly selfish and may push your child away from you even further. The message you send to your child is: if he or she does something that you don’t approve, then you are not their parent anymore and you want to have nothing to do with them. Rather, you should participate in your child’s life, ask questions and openly discuss their decisions, and try to understand them even if you disapprove. This is what a true parent should do, and your child will appreciate it.
Do not ever play favorites between siblings. You may think that this one is easy and obvious – and with young children it is indeed easier to maintain fairness – but it gets harder to notice when your children become adults. There are plenty of real-life examples: one child goes to college and takes loans which he then pays off without asking you for money; the other child doesn’t know what to do with his life and you end up subsidizing his entire college education. One child works and pays you rent while living in your house; the other child can’t hold a job and you kindly let him live in your house for free. One child can organize her life efficiently and doesn’t need much of your help with her kids; the other child is disorganized and you volunteer your babysitting help to her every day. You may not even realize you’re giving preferential treatment; all you see is that one child is more successful and responsible so he doesn’t appear to need much of your help; the other child is needy and makes poor choices, so your parental love compels you to help her unconditionally.
Why is this a mistake? What you are in fact doing is punishing one of your children for being more successful by diverting their share of your parental help and love to the other child who is needy. Such treatment is unfair, it divides your children and creates sibling rivalry. Yes, one of the children may occasionally need more help than others, but if this continues for an extended period of time, it’s your responsibility to openly discuss the situation with all of your children, to listen to the other children’s concerns, to try to make it up to your other children somehow, and to encourage your needier child to improve their situation as soon as possible in order to restore balance and fairness within the family.
This is not my favorite topic to write about, but I hope that some older parents who read this will take it to heart and will better understand their faults; I also hope that some younger parents will learn from these mistakes and will be careful not to repeat them with their children. In case some of my readers have been affected by these and other parental mistakes, there’s an excellent book “Toxic Parents” which can offer you healing and closure.