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Three Common Mistakes in Parenting

The good news is that they are 100 percent avoidable.

Source: Finian Lickona, Center for the 4th and 5th Rs
Source: Finian Lickona, Center for the 4th and 5th Rs

1. Giving too much and expecting too little.

In a Time and CNN poll, two-thirds of American parents said they think they’ve spoiled their children. In many homes, adults are doing all the giving, kids all the taking. That’s a recipe for producing self-centered, entitled kids like the two teenage daughters who, when their single-parent mother asked for help making dinner, replied, “That’s a mother’s work.”

Research finds that kids who have regular chores—age-appropriate jobs that they don’t get paid for but are their way of contributing to family life—develop greater concern for others, within and beyond the family. Explain to your kids that they are needed to make the family work; their help makes a real difference.

Treat allowance as a separate matter: one of the benefits, like food and shelter, of being part of a family. And use it as an opportunity to teach generosity by having a system whereby kids divide their allowance equally among three jars: Save, Spend, and Give. Help them choose a charitable cause they’ll really care about.

2. Being a friend and not an authority figure.

Many parents want to be cool in the eyes of their kids. They’d like to be seen as a “friend” and aren’t comfortable coming from a position of authority. They have trouble saying no and trouble getting their kids to obey them and speak to them respectfully.

By contrast, effective parents have a strong sense of their moral authority—their right to be respected and obeyed.

A half-century of childrearing research has identified three basic styles of parenting:

  • Authoritarian (top-down, low on love, with little use of reasoning)
  • Permissive (high on love but low on authority; kids rule the roost)
  • Authoritative (combining high expectations, the confident exercise of authority, valuing obedience to parents’ rules and requirements, being warm and nurturing, using reasoning to explain expectations, and being willing to give kids a fair hearing if they express their viewpoint respectfully)

At all developmental levels—early childhood, middle childhood, and adolescence—authoritative parents have been found to have the most confident, competent, and morally responsible children.

3. Failing to create an intentional family culture.

Culture shapes character. We can't count on the wider culture to help us raise kind and respectful kids. A media-driven, materialistic, and hypersexualized world bombards our kids with negative messages and models that can easily have a bigger role in shaping their values and character than we do.

If we want to maximize our influence as parents, we have to be more intentional and vigilant than parents in the past.

That means taking deliberate steps to create a positive family culture strong enough to withstand the unhealthy influences of the wider culture. We can form that kind of intentional family culture if we:

  • Take clear stands that communicate our beliefs and values (e.g., “The use of media in the family—including all screens—is a privilege, not a right, and must be exercised in a way that is consistent with our family values”). Use a book such as Good Pictures Bad Pictures to explain why pornography is harmful and how to avoid it.
  • Create, with kids’ input, a “family mission statement” or “family way”—a series of “we” statements that express the kind of family we want to be (“We show kindness in our words and actions,” “When we hurt someone, we say we’re sorry and do something to make up for it,” etc.).
  • Have strict rules about screens—where and how much they can be used—so they don’t dominate family life and displace the face-to-face conversations that play a crucial role in transmitting values.
  • Protect time for “connective rituals,” such as the family meal, bedtime reading, praying and worshiping together, birthday and holiday celebrations, shared activities in the outdoors, and meaningful one-on-one time. Those connective rituals strengthen your bond with your children and help to give you the inside track in a world of competing influences.

A study of alcoholic families found that kids who grew up in ones with strong connective rituals were less likely to suffer from the classic problems of “adult children of alcoholics.”

So don’t spoil your kids by failing to give them real responsibilities in family life, don’t deprive them of the authority figure they want and need you to be, and don’t let the culture determine what kind of family you are.

The good news about these three common mistakes of parenting is that they are 100 percent avoidable.

For many good insights into effective parenting and other mistakes to avoid, check out the award-winning resources of the Center for the Improvement of Child Caring, founded and directed by my colleague Dr. Kerby Alvy—in particular, his book Parenting Errors: How to Solve Them.

I also recommend Marcia Segelstein's 2019 book, Don't Let the Culture Raise Your Kids.