17 Mar

Three Parenting Beliefs that Kill Your Child’s Creativity, Joy, and Potential (and How to Turn Them Around)

We all carry beliefs that shape our parenting behavior. Many of these beliefs were formed in early childhood and are deeply lodged into our brains.

Some of these beliefs are helpful in our quest to raise kind, compassionate, resilient and responsible children.   

Some of these beliefs are not. These are killer beliefs because they kill creativity, potential, joy, and relationship.

Let’s start with one of my favorites . . .

“If I don’t nip this (fill in your child’s unwanted behavior here) in the bud right now, my child will end up homeless, forever lonely, a sociopath, or (fill in your worst fear here.)”

Have you thought something like that before? (I have.) When you have that thought, how do you feel? Maybe worried, fearful, or a bit panicky? And when you feel worried, fearful, and a bit panicky, how do you respond?

My response usually sounds something like this:  “That’s it! No more (thing my child most wants) until you can get your act together! I can’t believe you (did that thing that makes me crazy)! Shame on you!”

And now the turn-around belief that can change everything:

“The child in front of me is not the person they will be as an adult. They have lots of time to learn and grow. I can help guide them to become a respectful, responsible, kind and independent adult, but this is a long term process.”

How do you feel when you have this kind of thought? Are you feeling a little more calm and confident, patient and thoughtful about what to do next? In 99% of cases, your child’s behavior is not an emergency. You can almost always take some time to calm down, reconnect to your creative brain, and find solutions that might actually be helpful.

I remembered this turn-around thought about 6 hours after I read my son’s report card a few years ago.

My first reaction after reading it was despair, then anger:  “Oh no! Missing assignments again? And a lousy grade in science? But how could this be? We got him a tutor, we created a new homework routine, I put Post-It Notes on his planner . . . he’s clearly too wrapped up in his computer games! That’s it!  I’m throwing that laptop out the window! And no more iPhone, either!”  

My partner was completely on board.  

But later, I caught myself in the doom loop. I remembered that my child is still learning and growing and I did not need to react right then out of anger and fear. This was not an emergency; I could accept what had happened without catastrophizing and focus on what to do next.

Which is what I did. I accepted the report card for what it was in that moment. And then together with my son (the next day), we brainstormed solutions for the future. With this more calm, future-focused approach, my son was more open to problem-solving. He suggested that he meet with his teacher weekly to stay on top of material and missed homework. We also got more disciplined about putting his phone in the phone basket (out of reach) during homework time.

The result? Our relationship stayed strong, and his performance in science class improved. But even if his grade had not improved, a more even-keeled response increases the odds that he’ll be open to problem-solving in the future.  

Now here’s another belief I carried for years without knowing the harm it was doing:

“Parenting is a series of challenges to overcome.”

This one is popular. Is it yours? People who hold this belief tend to feel like parenting is hard work, serious, and full of responsibility. They believe that they must constantly be on the lookout for possible problems. They feel driven to find the best solution, as quickly as possible, for the good of the child.

I didn’t realize how damaging this belief was until my then four year-old daughter called me on it. One evening while getting tucked into bed, she said, “I don’t want to be a Mommy.”

I asked her why not.

She replied, “Being a Mommy is so hard. There’s always so much to do. You have to take care of everyone and everything. It’s awful.”

Yikes! What a wake-up call! My belief that parenting was basically drudgery not only sucked my own joy from the process, it stole some of hers, too. While it’s true that the parenting rollercoaster feels excruciating at times and can literally make you sick to your stomach, there are other times too:  beautiful, heart-warming, deeply satisfying times. 

Now notice what shifts when you replace this belief with something different:

“Parenting is a mystery to explore*” or “Parenting is an adventure to enjoy.”

What shifts for you when you choose one of these mantras instead? As for me, I feel lighter, more excitedly curious, at peace with the unexpected, and more open to the joy along the way. What mantra helps you enjoy the journey? I’d love to hear what you come up with! (*Thank you to Maria Antoniadis, PhD, for suggesting this new perspective to me in 2010.)

When parenting is a mystery to explore I could become curious rather than disgusted when my daughter came home from school, refused to clean up her mess, cried and then fell to the floor like uncooked spaghetti. Rather than, “My child is a whiny mess,” I can choose to think, “Hmmm, I wonder what’s going on for her today?”  

Then I might look in her lunchbox and notice that nothing was eaten. A-ha! Curiosity in this case might lead to putting a bowl of peaches in front of her (which I did, and the whining disappeared.)

Now here’s a belief that many of us hold, but don’t like to admit:

“If my child doesn’t get straight A’s and go to a top ranked college, she will be unhappy forever.”

This belief has us check over homework every night, make sure flash cards have been neatly created, and avoid giving children household responsibilities due to their jam-packed schedules.  

Not only is this belief untrue (check out Madeline Levine’s Teach Your Children Well or Frank Bruni’s Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be), but it also gets in the way of children learning many important long-term life and social skills like:

  • recovering from failure
  • standing up for oneself
  • finding creative solutions to problems
  • and even how to cook a basic meal

When we hold this belief, we value results over relationship. We push our children toward ever greater achievement “in the name of love” not realizing that love is the greater achievement.

The Harvard Grant Study, which is the longest running study of human development, charted the physical and emotional health of more than 200 Harvard alumni since 1938. The study found that the most important influence, by far, on a flourishing life is . . .  love (George Vaillant, in Triumphs of Experience).

The alumni who felt more connected to other people were not only the happiest, they were also the most successful at work and at school (Christine Carter, The Sweet Spot).

So I invite you to be curious about your parenting beliefs. Are they helpful? Or hurtful?

Beliefs become behaviors and “thoughts become things. So choose the good ones.”  (Mike Dooley, www.Tut.com)

To read more about how thoughts drive feelings and behavior, read this short article:  The Power of Perspective in Parenting

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