Doing it right: Raising kids typically a mix of nailed it, blew it

Published: Sunday, Aug. 14 2011 3:00 p.m. MDT

Sisters Amanda Reid, 18, and Aubrey Reid, 4, rest in a park. Beth Reid says parenting is a learning process that she's been refining as she goes.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

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.

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