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What makes a successful parent? I thought it would be simple: I’d imagine what my parents might have done and do the opposite. It doesn’t work, but if you have kids, you know that. Parenting, I’ve found, is like that Kobayashi Maru test in Star Trek: a no-win situation that reveals your character more than it tests your intellect or tactical skills.
You will screw up and your mistakes will affect your kids in ways you can’t anticipate. But unlike the Star Trek simulation, which is rigged to destroy everyone, parenting allows do-overs. Not only can you learn from your own mistakes, but you can also learn from the collective stuff-uppery of every dad who’s ever lived.
Screw Up 1:
You’re obsessed with getting your kid into varsity.
Drug use. Petty crime. High rates of anxiety and depression. That’s what psychology professor Suniya Luthar expected to discover when she set out to study the children of impoverished families 20 years ago. And she found it. Problem was, she found even more of it in the affluent kids she used as a control group. Luthar has been studying the high-achieving offspring of high-achieving parents ever since, and each new finding worries her more than the last. The kids who have the most going for them are at the highest risk. “The problems come when they feel that their parents will be disappointed,” Luthar says. “Their sense of self-worth gets tied up in an inextricable way with not failing.”
Know what not to do: Sure, a father should challenge his children to rise to their potential. But that’s a small step away from showing disapproval when they don’t excel. Even a raised eyebrow can convey it. “Sometimes you don’t even realise you’re doing it,” Luthar says. Moreover, your disappointment may be echoed by teachers, coaches and peers. “If a child feels criticised and made to feel like a failure, and this happens on a regular basis, that’s a sure sign of danger.”
Screw Up 2:
You’re rude to the overworked Spur waitress.
You can lecture all day about manners and treating people with respect, but if your actions contradict your words, your credibility shrivels. “Our kids watch us and our attitudes,” Luthar says. “I remember one kid saying, ‘Dad’s tone of voice changes when he’s talking to somebody at work.’ There are many cases where the parent has a work self that’s different. Kids notice.”
Level up: “The kids who say their parents value success over decency are the ones who get in trouble,” Luthar says. Connect your words with actions. Stop to help a stranger. Show sympathy for people who are worse off. And treat people with respect when you have nothing to gain.
Screw Up 3:
You think your kid’s the next Messi.
When your son ran in that intercept try or scored that deflected goal, in your mind he became a prospect, a future pro or at worst a provincial-level athlete. “As parents we become very vulnerable when we begin to look at sports as some kind of career path or an activity that has some big payoff at the end,” says Mark Hyman, a lawyer who’s written three books about youth sports. “You’re vulnerable to making some big mistakes.” The biggest mistake is pushing a child into year-round training and competition for a single sport. “You’re creating barriers that prevent kids from becoming the best athletes they can be,” Hyman says. “They get injured or want to quit before they’re near their potential.”
Regain your perspective: Hyman’s take: too often, sports programmes exist to separate parents from their money without concern for the interests of the participants. Remember that kids play to have fun, to be with friends or maybe just because they like the kit. “Exceptional athletes go on to excel anyway,” Hyman points out. “They don’t need to be treated as professionals from age seven.”
Screw Up 4:
You let your kids quit everything.
This is the flip side of the sports dad derangement syndrome: in a Finnish study, kids with the best speed, agility, and dexterity did better in maths and reading in their first few years in school than kids who hadn’t developed these skills. Granted, the study didn’t show cause and effect. But according to the US Centers for Disease Control, school-age kids should exercise at least an hour a day doing a variety of activities. And the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting screen time to no more than two hours a day for kids older than two.
Get a move on: Organised sports are still the best way for kids to play at full speed while developing all-around fitness. “But kids may get the message from parents that if they’re not stars, there’s no reason to continue,” Hyman says. He notes that the peak age for sports participation is 11, and 70% of children are finished by 13. So how do you encourage them to stick with it? Go non-competitive: cycling and running groups improve cardiovascular fitness, while martial arts, yoga and dance develop balance and coordination. Scouts still go hiking and camping, and youth group camps are often open to non-members. Or just go for a family walk or swim.
Screw Up 5:
You let them post on Instagram, and then you stalk them.
Don’t look at social media as a perpetual orgy of bullying, stalking and naked selfies, says Professor Danah Boyd, author of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. “Parents don’t realise that young people are using social media as a primary place to hang out,” she says. “The kids are trying to connect with people they know from school, from church, from extra maths.” True, you find cruelty you wouldn’t have seen before the Internet. But learning to cope with it, Boyd says, can teach kids important skills.
Build a foundation of trust: How do you maintain trust in a wired home? Boyd proposes the “cool adult” solution. Have an adult your kids are comfortable with – an aunt, an uncle, a coach – connect with them online. If they slip outside boundaries, you’ll hear about it.
Screw Up 6:
Your marriage makes the ones in Game of Thrones look healthy.
Conflict at home can have a lasting effect. In a British study, brain scans of teens exposed to prolonged discord at young ages showed reduced grey matter in the cerebellum vermis. This same pattern is also seen in patients with depression, anxiety, ADHD, autism and even schizophrenia, says lead study author Professor Nicholas Walsh, a psychologist at the University of East Anglia. That doesn’t mean family turmoil causes those disorders or that isolated squabbles shrink young brains. But when a messy marriage affects the daily dynamics of your household – even if you never actually argue in front of the kids – it just might lead to real and lasting damage.
Keep home a haven: You can’t shield your kids from all conflict. In fact, Walsh says, “kids who are mildly stressed or challenged when growing up perform better academically.” But while you’re working on your marriage problems, try to promote a family climate that’s as warm as possible, he says: “Kids need a supportive, stimulating environment in which to develop the healthy habits and skills they’ll need later in life.” Which brings us back to this: parenthood is set up for you to fail. You will, repeatedly. But human bodies and brains are resilient. “There’s no universal parenting approach to anything,” says Boyd, the social media expert. “You have to figure out what works in your house.” As every Star Trek fan knows, just because the future is an undiscovered territory doesn’t mean it can’t be better than the one you’re in now.
By Lou Schüler