The Mainstream Parenting Myths We Need to Forget
Ahh parenting myths. We have all heard some.
‘Stop picking that child up! You’ll spoil them!’
‘Babies cry to exercise their lungs’
‘A little whisky in your bottle never hurt you’
Some are very easy to dismiss as terribly bad advice. I hope! And yet others just keep sticking around. So many things are accepted as fact and repeated to parents cautioning about the horrible children they are sure to raise if they don’t take note!
And yet honestly, I think if people just thought a little harder about the advice they give they would see straight through it.
So many things we accept as being necessary and beneficial for children are just…not. But we repeat them as they were told to us, without thought, perpetuating myths about children and parenting that are just not true. In some cases making parenting harder and less enjoyable, underestimating children, and aiding childism.
We have much to gain by reconsidering a few things…
12 Mainstream Parenting Myths We Need to Forget
1. Chores/routine teach personal responsibility
Giving children a list of chores which they have to do daily, often with the incentive of reward charts, is seen as teaching them to be responsible and helpful. I mean in the end they are the ones responsible for completing the chores and it is helpful to you so case closed right?
Not so much.
We need to stop focusing on behaviours in isolation and instead look at the reason behind them. Sure a child is doing chores, but are they feeling a sense of personal responsibility if they are being forced into the action? Are they genuinely feeling helpful or are they doing it for the reward at the end? If we take the time to really think about it, the answer is clear. Why would you feel personally responsible when someone else is making you do it? That makes no sense at all! The same is true for forcing children to stick to a routine, which also doesn’t teach commitment or responsibility, but rather obligation and loss of control.
“In fact, one experiment after another has demonstrated that rewards are not only ineffective—they’re often counterproductive. For example, researchers have found that children who are rewarded for doing something nice are less likely to think of themselves as nice people. Instead, they tend to attribute their behavior to the reward. Then, when there’s no longer a goody to be gained, they’re less likely to help than are kids who weren’t given a reward in the first place. They’re also less likely to help than they themselves used to be.” -Alfie Kohn
How to you promote authentic responsibility and helpfulness?
- Don’t force help. No one wants to be made to help out. That just makes it seem like ‘work’ and something to be avoided.
- Let them help. Too often we brush kids aside when they express a genuine desire to help, and then expect them to help out on our time schedule, in the ways that we want. Recognise the ways they are already helpful and make space for that.
- Be thankful. There’s no need to reward helpfulness and make it about your approval instead of their intrinsic motivation, just express genuine thanks.
- Model helpfulness and responsibility. Show them what this looks like.
- Allow them as much responsibility as they desire. If there are things they would like to be solely responsible for, let them, instead of discouraging them because it’s just easier for you to do it, or you don’t think they’re old enough. Kids are surprisingly capable!
2. Children want parental control
I hear this often. Children want rules, boundaries, limits, and control because it makes them feel safe. It’s a very commonly accepted belief. We justify our control of children because it’s what they need, what they want.
I believe this is an example of childism.
“We constantly ask ourselves, in anxiety and pain, “What is best for the children, what is right for the children, what should we do for the children?” The question is an effect as well asa cause of modern childhood. Until the institution was invented, it would hardly have occurred to anyone to ask the question or, if they had, to suppose that what was good for children was any different from what was good for everyone else.” -John Holt, Escape from Childhood
Is control in a relationship good for anyone? Would a controlling partner be a good thing? Would that make us feel safe? Nope.
Children are humans, just like adults, and if the parental relationship is supposedly a model for future relationships, then the concept of control being helpful is concerning. What really makes a person feel safe and cared for? I believe it’s unconditional love, support, protection, safety, and acceptance. Those things don’t generally require control. If they do, for example in the case of immediate safety concerns, then these instances are rare.
“There is this pervasive idea even in respectful parenting circles that children crave boundaries. They go so far as to suggest that certain behaviour is actually a cry for parental enforced limits…
This to me has to be one of the scariest ideas ever; that somebody else could decide for a person if what they are saying and doing is valid or not.”
– Jitterberry, Do Children Crave Boundaries? (a very worthwhile read)
3. Respecting children makes them selfish
Suggestions to consider children’s needs, respect their autonomy, and allow them freedom are often met with comments along these lines. I’m unsure how people ever came to this conclusion, but they’re pretty set on it. Somehow consideration for children will make them think they are the only people who should be considered? This just makes absolutely no sense at all.
What happened to ‘treat people how you want to be treated’? Surely showing children that others are worthy of consideration and respect will encourage them to do the same. What is the alternative? Treat children disrespectfully, limit their autonomy, restrict their freedom, and then expect them to be selfless and considerate human beings who care for the needs of others? How on earth does that work? After a childhood of being routinely disrespected, why would you feel a sense of caring for others? Wouldn’t you act the same way that has been modelled for you?
Honestly, I think people just repeat these comments they’ve heard others make without a thought at all.
“Respecting children teaches them that even the smallest, most powerless, most vulnerable person deserves respect, and that is a lesson our world desperately needs to learn.” –L.R. Knost
4. Forcing manners creates thankful children
Imagine you’ve just been given a gift. Something you’ve always wanted. You’ve opened it and are staring at it with excitement and overwhelm. Before you even have a chance to feel grateful, you are prompted, ‘Say thank you!!’ Maybe you are too distracted to hear and are reminded again, ‘It’s polite to say thank you. Now say thank you!’ Maybe you look up with a grateful smile and jump over to offer a hug, the excitement and thankfulness escaping from your body. Maybe that’s still not enough because automatic words are more important than genuine feelings of thanks, ‘Don’t be rude please, now say thank you!’
Forced manners do not equal genuine thankfulness. What leads to grateful children? Nurturing genuine feelings, not repeating words that are not really felt. Notice all the ways they show their thanks, it’s so much more meaningful. Socially accepted manners come in time through modelling. Children are very adept at working out how human interactions work, it doesn’t need to be forced.
5. Children need rules and structure because one day they will have a job
This one is a little sad. Are we really just preparing our children for 9-5 jobs? For taking orders from someone else? I truly hope not. I wish people would consider why they say these things instead of just repeating commonly held beliefs that no longer serve us at all (it’s debatable whether they ever did).
The truth is no one knows what the future will look like for our children, or what kind of jobs they will hold. They probably haven’t even been invented yet. All we can do is focus on today. What do our children need from us today? It’s definitely not arbitrary rules in preparation for the workforce. Would that even be a good way to prepare? Shouldn’t we want our children to work in respectful environments where they are not afraid to stand up for themselves? Don’t employers want innovators and problem solvers, rather than people who need constant micromanagement?
And if they do go on to have a job that requires rules and structure, do you honestly believe it takes 18 years to prepare for that? To practice being able to wake up to an alarm, listen to instructions, or meet deadlines? Nope. Whatever environment they choose to work in, they will be motivated to comply with what is expected because it is their choice, force has nothing to do with it.
6. Children need routine
This one seems plausible! However, can it really apply to all children? Children are all individual, as are adults, and they can’t just be lumped together like this.
Some people are spontaneous and go with the flow, others like to know what will be happening on any given day. But does anyone like having a routine forced on them? I don’t think so.
If children ‘need’ a routine, that doesn’t mean we have to create one for them and enforce it. If a person needs or wants a routine they will naturally gravitate to one themselves. You can support them with it, help them decide the best times to do things, remind them of their plans if they forget, etc. But forced routines? Nonconsensual routines? I don’t think anyone needs that.
7. Not allowing children to quit encourages commitment
This is a very common belief, especially with sports. People believe that when a child wants to quit before the end of the term, they must coerce them into continuing in order to instil in them a strong sense of commitment. All it takes is a millisecond of thought to realise this cannot be true.
How does it feel to be made to continue with something you no longer have the desire to do? You probably feel frustrated, angry, powerless, and resentful. It is definitely not helpful for your relationship with the person who is forcing you. And how would you feel about commitments in the future? Would you be likely to try out new things? Or would you hold back for fear of not being able to withdraw your consent at any time? Would it stop you pursuing things for fear of having to make a long-term commitment?
Removing the option to quit does not encourage commitment, but the opposite!
That’s not to say you can’t talk about the effect that quitting might have on other team members and work out solutions together. But forcing participation against a child’s wishes is just not ok and not helpful. Encourage commitment by modelling it. Love and accept children unconditionally so they feel safe to take risks.
Allowing them to quit is not a failure, but frees them up to find their true passion and real commitment.
8. Rules teach self-control
The word is SELF-control. How do people think you learn self-control from being controlled by others? There’s no need for self-control if you’re already being controlled, yet many people blindly believe this one. Probably because it was told to them, passed down from generations that believed children needed strict control at all times. We now know that’s not true so we can ditch this faulty belief too.
Rules do not teach self-control, they teach that you are not in control.
What’s a better way to support the development of self-control?
- Empathy. One of the most important parts of learning self-control is to be able to regulate your emotions. You can’t control your behaviour if you are unable to deal with your feelings. We can help our children develop good emotional regulation skills with support and empathy.
- Meeting their needs. When children can trust that they are important, considered, respected, and that their needs will be met, they are more easily able to practice self-control. If you are fearful that your needs may not be met you are unable to wait for things in case you won’t have the same opportunity in the future.
- Model self-control!
- Understand children’s capabilities and don’t expect more than their brain development allows.
9. Children can’t be trusted
“Many people seem to think that the way to take care of children is to ask in any situation what is the most stupid and dangerous thing the children could possibly do, and then act as if they were sure to do it.” – John Holt, How Children Fail
Oh, how afraid we are to trust children. It’s like we believe they’re just waiting for an opportunity to do something harmful, unhealthy, dangerous, or hurtful. The thought of giving children even a moderate amount of freedom or choice in their life is met with a huge amount of fear. ‘Oh I could never do that, my child would do x (insert worst case scenario here)’. The thing is, these comments mostly come from people who have never tried. Never tried letting their children decide what to wear, when to go to bed, what to eat, how high to climb that tree, or any other things that are perfectly acceptable for adults to decide for themselves. So why all the negative assumptions?
The truth is, children are trustworthy, and children are capable. Why don’t people believe that? Because children are never given a chance to show us. Because when all their decisions are made for them, they end up severely lacking practice in making decisions.
“We underestimate so much and so continually both the competence and the drive for competence in the young.” – John Holt, Escape from Childhood
10. Forced sharing promotes generosity and good social skills
The idea that to teach kids to share you must force them to share is extremely common. But, how can children experience feelings of generosity and a genuine desire to share if they’ve always been forced? It’s more likely that forcing children to give up their possessions will mean they are less empathetic and less generous in the future. Forced sharing creates negative feelings in a child, not generosity.
As for encouraging good social skills, when in adult life is a person forced to share the way a child is? If someone wants to use one of your possessions must you immediately give it to them in the name of ‘sharing’? No. If someone takes it off you and gives it to them anyway that’s called stealing, not sharing.
So we’re told that respecting children apparently makes them selfish, but teaching them they can demand things and someone must give them to them straight away does not? I don’t understand how these ideas became so thoroughly entrenched in society. A moment of thought surely reveals how ridiculous they are.
11. Children learn to be ‘good’ by being punished
How protective of this belief people are! It makes sense why. If you have to admit that punishment is not necessary, then how do you reconcile your use of it with those you love? That’s really confronting. But denying it is not going to change things. You can’t change the past but you can change the future. When you know better, you do better.
How can making children feel worse ever make them want to do better? What punishment teaches is shame, secrecy, helplessness, resentment, dishonesty, blame, abuse of power, and many more negative things. It also damages relationships and violates children’s rights. Children absolutely do not need punishment to learn. Ever.
“The belief that children must be punished to learn better behaviors is illogical. Children learn to roll, crawl, walk, talk, read, and other complex behaviors without a need for punishment. Why, then, wouldn’t the same gentle guidance, support, and awareness of developmental capabilities that parents employ to help their little ones learn those complex skills also work to help them learn to pet the cat gently and draw on paper instead of walls?” – L.R.Knost
Read more about parenting without punishment here.
12. Comfort reinforces ‘bad’ behaviour
Love is not a reward.
Comfort should not be rationed out dependent on behaviour. In fact, when children are having a hard time is when they need our love and understanding most.
What about when you have to protect your boundaries and your child cries? Still comfort! It doesn’t mean you are ‘giving in’ or condoning the behaviour. It means that you are allowed to have boundaries, and they are allowed to feel disappointed/angry/upset about them. More on that here.
“There isn’t a huge amount of scientific research on love withdrawal, but the little that does exist has turned up disturbingly consistent findings. Children on the receiving end tend to have lower self-esteem. They display signs of poorer emotional health overall and may even be more apt to engage in delinquent acts. If we consider a broader category of “psychological control” on the part of parents (of which love withdrawal is said to be “a defining characteristic”), older children who are treated this way are more likely than their peers to be depressed.” – Alfie Kohn
So many of these parenting myths are based in fear. And what do we often do when we are afraid? Try to control the situation.
The thing is, children are people. They are not ours to control, and they do not respond well to it. Instead of coming up with control-based solutions to our fears, we can focus on connection. You can only attempt to control your children for a limited time, but if you focus on connection? Well, that can last a lifetime.
“If you force control now, you risk your influence later.” – Lori Petro
Forget the myths. Question what you’ve been told about children. Make it your goal to connect, not control.
And seriously, don’t put whisky in your baby’s bottle!
Hear hear! Well said! I’m finally reading Unconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn and research backs up most of what you said.
You know what this reminds me of when people pass on bad, mainstream advice?
Receiving one of those chain emails when those were a thing hahaha. People pass it on without thinking, just because they received it. You get the same email from several people you know:
“Forward to 10 people! Do it or something TERRIBLE will happen D: ! It’s great I promise! Carole did it, and she found the love of her life! Mark didn’t do it and his car broke!”
Super widespread, ominous forecasting… and attributing what happens in anecdotes as evidence that it’s good to do what they say. All of it going against what we know to make sense 😛
PMSL! You are so right!
The idea that respect teaches selfishness is very common in the Black American community. It’s something I try hard to speak against because it’s so pervasive that a lot of people view abuse as “good parenting”. It stems from a variety of generational issues and just now we’re realizing it’s not okay.
As someone who was raised by people who believed that I can tell you that it creates a person who has zero ability to consider themselves in a situation without feeling as if that’s a punishable offense. Until a few years ago even suggesting to my friends that I’d rather go to one restaurant over the one that they want to go to seemed selfish to me. Anything but total compliance with what others around me wanted seemed selfish and being selfish was the worst thing I could possibly be.
This myth teaches children that respect and a voice are privileges they will never deserve and that wanting those things makes them unlovable. Thank you Sara for this post, and your entire blog, it’s one of the tools that helped me learn a different way to treat children!
Hi, I love your post and I enjoy and learn every time I read your posts. It helps me to be a better mum. But I wonder one thing. We have to respect their desire to do or not something and not to push them to do something they don’t want to do and accept if they want to stop like an activity they use to enjoy. But it is possible that when they are older they come back to us and ask us why we didn’t push them as they would have been much better to this or that. I am specifically thinking of languages. I am French and live in England. I speak French to my children but don’t push them to speak French back to me. Their grammar is pretty poor. I am worried that one day they are cross with me for not pushing them with their French. We are human beings and we often can be lazy and choose the easy option but regret it in the same time. I am confused about this. I would love to hear your point of view.
Hi, i would suggest to have an honest conversation with them about your concerns regarding French. Tell them why you wish they would choose to speak French more and let them know your concern (for example so they can speak fluent with family members etc) if it’s just that you wish they had another language I wouldn’t worry… Maybe they’ll never need it, if they do they still can learn. I am fluent in 3 languages now because I want and need to be, but I grew up in a regular one language home with no early exposure to another language. My third language I learned in my twenties and I actually speak it with my children, it’s their first language. So i believe it is a bit of a hype of our day to raise bilingual kids but I wouldn’t want to bend to that pressure for no other good reason. If they want to know it they will learn it in their ow time.
It’s not because I want them to be bilingual. My parents don’t speak English but it’s ok because my kids can speak French even if it’s not perfect. It’s just because I believe it’s half of who they are. But then I guess it’s me thinking that not them. I know some adults with mixed parents who regret their parents not pushing them to speak their language, But I will speak to them like you said. Thank you.
Your post blew me away because I agree wuth everything in it 100 percent but find that these myths are SO very pervasive that I honestly feel like keeping him with me as a guide as long as possible (as opposed to child care and school) is the only way to give him everything my heart and instinct desire to give him. To me its such a deeply ingrained childism at play that even philosophies that are meant to be considerate to and respectful of the child (e.g. Montessori et al) end up being practiced from a childist lens. Thanks for posting, these are basic himan rights and I dream of the day they’re recognized as such. I’ve shared this on my page. 🌷
Some friends and I are trying to determine if this is satire?
Sara, thank you so much for this post. As someone who was raised by parents who believed in and perpetuated many of these myths, which stem from Victorian era authoritarian parenting, i.e “children should be seen and not heard,” I’ve had to completely re-wire my thinking and behavior in order to become a peaceful parent. The process was not easy, but offering my children the respect, love, and freedom they deserve has healed so much in me! Thanks for tackling the tough stuff.
I agree with many of the Topics and try to get rid of some of the Things I grew up with (like when my son misbehaves and I connect with him my mother says he is playing you).
What I struggle is the part w´here you say there don´t need to be rules. What about “we speek kindly to each other” or “we don´t hit” and this type of “rules”? Wouldn´t even call them rules, but maybe more principles. How to incorporate this into everyday life?
And what about normal life where we can´t unschool and not work, so they have to be somewhere at a given time for a given period….
I realize I am not in the majority for agreeing with your statements, but from the moment I became a mother, I knew that the things I was being told to do and not do with my child do not feel right. Like letting him cry it out, etc.
We are influenced by our partners, parents, friends, school. It becomes difficult to know if you are helping or hurting your child.
I’m glad to find other mothers who see that showing love is the most important thing and that the rest will fall into place if we lead with unconditional love.