PROVO — Beth Reid remembers well the day she called her folks, in tears, because parenting has moments that are really hard. "Dad," she wailed, "you and mom always made this look easy."
He laughed so hard he dropped the phone.
"Easy" is not a word most parents use to describe the parenting process. Even folks like Reid, who's now an experienced mom with nine children ages 4 to 24, sometimes wonder what to do amid the backdrop of rules and advice that sometimes change. Remember the expert advice flip-flop over whether to put babies to sleep on their backs or tummies? And what about the fact that one child can seem so easy to raise while his younger brother is so very different?
Reid jokes that the first child should be a robot that acts like a real person. That way, a new parent gets practice but "anything you do that messes it up isn't a big deal." That's not how it works, though, so the Deseret News asked experts what parents do that might not be in a child's best interests and what they don't do enough — collecting advice on everything from TV time to the importance of play and choice to the benefits of breakfast.
Let kids be kids
In the name of helping kids succeed in school, there's a "disturbing trend" toward more structured preschool classes for kids 2 to 6, with work sheets and flash cards and rote memorization, says Larry Nelson, associate professor in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University. "Children need to play" with other kids. He's not talking about video games and TV, which are fine in small amounts. He's talking about the kind of play that develops language, social skills, emotion regulation, cognitive ability and physical growth, he says.
Kids need to play dolls and form teams and be imaginative and silly sometimes, experts agree.
Nelson and Merrill Kingston, a psychologist at Primary Children's Medical Center, both say parents' worries that comforting children will make them "soft" are well-intentioned but misguided. Soothing a crying baby does not spoil it, Nelson says. "Crying is how they communicate a need: I'm hungry. It hurts. I'm tired. Studies show that children whose parents respond to those infant needs become less clingy, the older they get. They sense they can trust their parents. 'I'm worth being loved.'... Those who don't can develop an insecure attachment. 'I'm not sure I am going to get what I need when I need it other than to be right there by mom and dad.' Kids who trust can go out and play.
As kids get a little older, some parents, particularly dads, believe they shouldn't console a child who falls or has his feelings hurt. Instead, it's "buck up, knock it off," says Kingston. "Being comforted outside themselves by someone they trust who empathizes can help them contain and internalize it and develop the ability to deal with it."
It also teaches children how to comfort themselves. Tell a kid to suck it up and she "might learn not to cry, but she's also not learning to experience distress and self-soothe. She won't know what to do with her feelings," he says.
Kingston says to emphasize what you want to see more of and ignore or perhaps give consequences for what you want less of. Many parents don't comment on — or sometimes even notice — a child's behavior unless it's misbehavior. And that means the way to get mom's or dad's attention is to be naughty.
Spanking is one of Nelson's chief worries. "I don't think parents realize how potentially harmful for the child and for the parent-child relationship spanking can be." He says studies show it doesn't teach children to make correct choices; they just learn to avoid punishment by not doing whatever when mom and dad are around. Besides that, studies say it can lead to aggression, juvenile delinquency, anger, hyperactivity or, for those naturally more reserved, a tendency to become even more withdrawn and lonely. It's also a self-esteem buster. Add damage to the parent-child relationship, he says, and there's no positive.
To replicate in adult scale the viewpoint of a child of 5 or 6 — peak spanking age — the average adult would need to be spanked by someone 11.5 feet tall and 760 pounds. "Can you imagine what that instills in a child?"
Parents are the ultimate role model and Kristi Frodsham, a Davis School District elementary school director, says parents should note how their children see them spend their time. Exercising? Reading? Problem-solving? They will get messages from the value they see their parents put on activities.
They'll also pay attention to how they see their parents address problems. If a child complains about a teacher's assignment, she suggests looking with the child at the teacher's website, if there is one. Read disclosure forms that explain what teachers expect. Address concerns with the teacher politely, rather than gossiping about it over the fence to a neighbor. Children will learn problem-solving and respect from those examples.
Once you've modeled good problem-solving basics, including being courteous and creative and thinking outside the box, don't forget to back off and "let the child do some of the problem-solving. Let them be their own advocates," says Frodsham.
Both Chris Williams, Davis School District spokesman, and Frodsham emphasize the importance of going to parent-teacher conferences to help a child succeed. It says the child is important. It's a chance to solve existing issues and make a connection that might be important in the future.
Land that helicopter
Control is a huge parenting issue, Nelson says. Helicopter parenting can be problematic, whether the goal is child-focused or parent-focused. Child-focused is warm and loving, wanting what's best for the child. Parent-focused is usually harsher, more controlling and takes aim at what makes the parent's life easier. Either can make a child fearful and tentative. As young as age 4, a child may get these messages: You're a failure. The world is a scary place. You don't have the skills.
Psychological control is very problematic, says Nelson. "After all I've done for you, that's how you show me you love me?" "I am disappointed."
He's not saying to let the child do whatever she wants. "The opposite of a controlling, harsh parent is not a permissive parent," he says, "but rather a parent with high expectations and clear, set rules that allow some autonomy within them."
Sometimes Dr. Tamara Sheffield, director of community health for Intermountain Healthcare, shakes her head. Parents often work hard to get their kids involved in sports, then roll out the junk food to celebrate afterward. Even so-called sports drinks that are just sugary water with a little salt are "empty calories to kids when water would be completely sufficient," she says. "Save sports drinks for when they've done hours of sweating work and need the electrolytes." As for junk food after sporting events, "There are wholesome foods that are good."
The other head-shaker is driving kids to school, rain or shine. "For the sake of safety and convenience," she says, "we get rid of one of the few times in the day where there's a concentrated period of time when they're active."
Parents who hope to instill a great work ethic in adolescents may encourage or at least allow children to work long hours while also attending school. Nelson says 15 hours seems to be a "magic number." Youths who work more than that number of hours during a week in the school year tend to have lower grades, higher drop-out rates, more drug and alcohol use, and lower aspirations for college. "The research shows it's associated with horrendous outcomes for these kids." Kids can work longer hours over school break.
Here's one that Sheffield calls a "crazy statistic": 60 to 70 percent of little children have daily dessert or candy every single day. It teaches children to see what should be an occasional treat as a daily food, she says. "They think after every meal you have to reward yourself for having eaten."
Among other parenting advice:
The American Academy of Pediatrics says toddlers under 2 should have no exposure to TV. Interactions should be in person and educational activity should use senses like touch and taste.
Limit screen time to two hours a day, Sheffield says. That's TV, computer, video games. "We've become a sitting society, but we are programmed to move around." Bar TVs or computers in bedrooms.
But don't ban all television or video games. Instead, says Nelson, set limits and let the child learn to regulate. Discuss what's appropriate and what's not. "If there's some negative content, don't freak out; talk about it. It helps children set good standards."
Try to breastfeed exclusively until a baby is introduced to solid foods. That's key to brain and immune system development, as well as preventing future obesity.
Don't let kids skip breakfast. They think they will be thinner, Sheffield says.
Breakfast skippers consistently weigh more than peers.
Teach kids organizational skills, says Frodsham, who believes they should learn to use a planner of some kind very young. "It's a life skill: listening, writing it down, keeping track of what was written down, referring to it to be prepared the next day." It's worth walking a child who forgets to do it back to school to get the information if it leads to a good lifelong habit.
Nelson worries about the anti-vaccination trend that has outlived news that the study which sparked it was a fraud. "Nine times out of 10, the parent (who doesn't vaccinate) will say it causes autism," he said. Andrew Wakefield, lead researcher, and his study have both been discredited, but the effects linger.
"It is so sad that children will be left exposed to life-threatening diseases because of parental ignorance," Nelson says.
A busy mom reflects
Reid says parenting is a learning process that she's been refining as she goes. She thinks she made too many decisions for her children when she was starting out; now she encourages the younger ones to make more choices. She's had victories — "They're all good children," she says — but she wishes she'd started some things earlier. And she wishes she'd emphasized religion more.
These days, she's back in school and balancing mothering and her other roles. It's hectic. But she's more patient and even relaxed than she was when she was younger. "Being in school full time makes it a little crazy, but I had to realize it's pretty irrelevant what grade I get on my transcript if my children are neglected. If I'm trying to be a good example — it's important to go to college — but I say don't talk to me, I'm trying to do homework .... that doesn't work."
She used to do things herself, like folding laundry, because it was easier and more perfect. That doesn't teach a child to help or give him skills. "Now, I let them load the dishwasher and don't fuss. I just say 'make everything face the water stream and it will come clean.' A lot of things don't matter; you have to pick your battles."
Here's another truth about parenting, she says: If you line up all your children when they are grown and ask them to describe their childhood, each will tell different stories.