I’m not proud to tell you that, on more than one occasion, I’ve felt so vicariously oppressed by what some parent has said or done to their kid that I’ve actually gone over and said something. Not surprisingly, most have looked at me like WTF? Get away from us!
What drives me crazy is that so much of what parents say and do to help their kids has the opposite effect. And then the kids suffer needlessly. When something is repeated over the life of a childhood, the impact is compounded and the damage difficult to undo.
However, the best news to come out of the world of neuroscience lately is that the brain is more plastic than originally thought. They’re discovering that if you consistently treat your child more respectfully for five months, her brain will change for the better. And so with the goal of trying to save kids from their parents’ good intentions, I give you three ways you may be ruining your kid’s life without knowing it.
1. You’re A Pimp
Your doorbell rings and there are your parents, all crouched down and ready for a big hug from their very own pint-sized flesh and blood. But your kid doesn’t rush over. Perhaps she’s busy playing. Or maybe she needs some time to warm up to them. For whatever reason, she’s not feeling it.
And you can’t help but wish she was. Can’t she give them something? They’ve come a long way and a cuddle would mean so much. Feeling the pressure, you whisper to your daughter, “Go give Grandma and Grandpa a hug and kiss!”
But as soon as those words come out of your mouth : BOOM! You’re guilty of prostituting your kid to perform acts of affection to satisfy your parents’ desires. Make no mistake about it: You’re the pimp. Your parents are the johns. And the currency you’re using is the single most powerful in the world: parental love and approval. Just because the affection isn’t sexual doesn’t mean there’s nothing wrong with it. Each and every time your child performs an act of “love” at your behest, her innate drive to genuinely express love takes a pummeling.
You’ve also set her up to believe it’s her responsibility to use her body to satisfy another’s desire, regardless of how she feels about it. So even if you’ve explained to her a million times that she has the right to say “no,” your actions, particularly when ingrained at an early age, speak much louder than words.
Physical affection when not given freely is wrong. Full stop.
My recommendation: Stop asking for a kiss goodbye. Stop asking where your hug is. Be loveable and your kids will want to love you — in the way they want to, when they want to.
2. You’re A Know-It-All
Virtually every day in my life as a mom of preschoolers, I know I’ll hear two things: “Put on a sweater” and “Just one more bite.” The energy parents pour into getting their kids to do these two things is as astounding as it is a total waste of time.
If you think a sweater can stop your kid from getting sick, you’re wrong. It can’t. A hundred years of conclusive scientific research tells us colds and pneumonia come from infections, not from being cold. You can be barefoot and have wet hair and still have the same chance of getting sick as someone wearing a hat and jacket.
If you want your kid to put on a sweater because you feel cold, that’s preposterous. Your kid isn’t you. Kids bodies differ from adults both anatomically and physiologically. Plus little ones are a hell of a lot more active. If you want your kid to put on a sweater because you’re afraid he might get cold, that’s not fair. If he’s not yet cold and puts it on, he may be hot and uncomfortable. But when you go so far as insisting your kid put a sweater on when he says he isn’t cold, essentially you’re saying, “I don’t believe you and I’m willing to have you resent me for it.” That’s not the message you want to give your kids.
My advice? Let your kid get cold. Let him know where a sweater is just in case. If time passes and you’re afraid he’s forgotten, remind him: “Honey, your sweater is on the bench, just in case.” Reminding is respectful. Forcing him to do something to satiate your misguided anxiety isn’t.
The same goes for this “just one more bite” business. You can’t know if your kid is still hungry. Think about it – it’s unlikely that you ever tried to make your newborn nurse longer – babies know when they’re full. But at some point parents stop believing their kids. Without a doubt, you WANT your kid to be in touch with the messages her body is sending.
“One more bite” essentially says: Don’t listen to your body, listen to me.
Back off and trust your kids to trust themselves.
3. You’re A Torturer
I was on the phone with my friend Lea when I heard her 6-month-old daughter screeching in the background.
“Auhh! What happened?” I asked.
“Nothing.” Lea explained. “Greg’s just playing Tickle Monster with her.”
Oh god, I thought, horrified.
What I wanted to tell Lea was that it’s possible for a person to be both laughing and in some real pain – particularly when tickled too hard for too long. The Ancient Romans knew it. The Ancient Chinese and Japanese did, too. That’s why they used tickling as an effective form of torture. Tickling is tricky. What is fun can turn dark on a dime but the tickler might not notice because the ticklee is still laughing, often unable to even eek out a “Stop!” And, of course, a baby can’t speak, let alone fend someone off or run away. That’s why the standard dynamic of a bigger person doing it to a weaker one is so problematic.
If you click on a site like tickleassault.com you’ll find some bound women hysterically laughing under headings like: Overpowering girls and forcing them to squirm and giggle like never before and Merciless Feet Tickling. Sadomasochists with a tickle fetish get off on being powerless to stop the pain. I’m guessing that’s not the kind of good time you’re going for with your kids.
While I concede it’s possible a kid may enjoy being tickled, when something has such a storied history as a form of torture, you have to be hypervigilant when doing it. I have a girlfriend who suffered years of being tickled by a father who never believed her when she said “Stop!” because she seemed to be having so much fun. One night when she was trying to fend him off during another attack, she managed to break his finger. He finally understood. You probably don’t want to send the message to your kids that saying “stop” means “continue.”