How “Good Advice” by Parents Turns out to Be Bad for Children

Some kids want to grow up to be pro basketball players or astronauts; my daughter on the other hand wants to grow up to become a unicorn. Lots of parents still tell their children often that they can grow up to be whatever they want to be. That’s all well and good unless your daughter wants to become a unicorn or your son is 16 years of age, only 5’5″, and wants to play for the Chicago Bulls. If your 16 year old has unrealistic pro sports dreams without a backup plan such as a college education or goals outside of these pro sports dream, then you are failing them as a parent by saying “you can be anything you want to be”. The odds of my daughter becoming a unicorn when she grows up are zero. I can respond with “that would be so much fun to become a unicorn, but we don’t get to change species when we grow up, although it is fun to pretend to be a unicorn now though”.

Reality and truth need to go hand in hand with your advice to your kids. Otherwise, your 16 year old with dreams of becoming a pro ball player may end up becoming a 25 year old living in your basement and delivering pizzas for a living.

Don’t dole out poor advice and absolutes that simply are not true in the real world. Evaluate the advice you are giving your kids: Is is true or realistic? Is it helpful or harmful to them in the longterm?

It is time to stop using antiquated words of advice with our children that are actually doing more harm than good. Turn those antiquated phrases around by using thoughts, ideas, and advice that can actually work in the real world and help them, not harm them.

Below are some of the common words of advice that parents are still using today that need to stop, along with suggestions regarding what should actually be said.

1. “Do as I say, not as I do.”

This is some of the worst advice parents can give to their children. Children actually learn more from their parents’ modelling of behavior, than what they say to them. If parents are modelling poor behavior then saying “do as I say, not as I do”, their words will have little to no impact. Instead, it is better to acknowledge their shortcomings if they see their child following in their footsteps with a particular bad habit. If parents feel compelled to use such a phrase, perhaps it is time to reassess their own habits.

For example, if I tell my daughter not to yell at her brothers, yet that is what I am doing every day to her and her brothers, perhaps it is time to look myself in the mirror and work toward meaningful change in stopping my own yelling first, so I can model better behavior. It is hard to teach someone how to change their behavior if you can’t or won’t do it yourself. Work to be an example of how you want your child to act, as you are the most influential model in their life. Actions speak louder than words.

2. “Everything will be ok.”

How do parents know everything will be ok? Parents are not fortune tellers, so sometimes it’s best not to use that phrase, especially when it is not helpful.

If your child’s best friend is dying of Leukaemia, it’s unrealistic and actually harmful to your child to say “everything will be ok”. Often to a child that phrase is internalized that things will turn out how they want them to turn out. To this child, that phrase can thus be interpreted in their mind that their friend will be cured and coming back to school soon. You don’t know if that is the case, especially in a situation where things are deemed “terminal” of “highly unlikely”.

Don’t give your child false hope, as you will be seen as a liar. It also inhibits their ability to process the situation. Instead of making yourself out to be a liar, be realistic. Let your child know gently and sensitively the reality of what is possible or likely going to happen. However, you can also allow them to keep hope alive at the same time. Don’t try to delude them of the gravity of the situation by saying “everything will be ok” if that is clearly not the case.

3. “Boys don’t cry.”

I don’t know who made up this lie, but it is a doozy. When parents say this to their sons, they are denying them their feeling, sending them the message that they need to hold back their emotions, and the society ends up with a whole lot of men who repress their emotions.

For decades parents have been telling their sons that they can’t cry. Why not? Repressing your emotions is not healthy emotionally in the long run, nor is it good for relationships. Allow your boys to turn into men who can appropriately show their emotions, including crying.

4. “Push through the pain.”

This lie can do actual physical harm to children. I was a runner for years and I had a coach that used to say “you need to run through the pain”. I was just a teen, but took those words seriously. I pushed through the pain and ended up with eight stress fracture and missing state finals with the team as a result of the injuries. Pain is a way our body signals to us that something is not right.

Discomfort is one thing, but to tell a child to push through actual pain is harmful. Instead, teach your child to listen to the signals from their body. Is it discomfort they are feeling or is it actual pain? Teach them to distinguish between the two and to get help if they are truly injured.

My hobby of running was ruined for a lifetime. Other athletes have done the same, creating so much injury in their body that they can never again enjoy their hobby. Don’t kill your child’s love for a hobby or sport by making it no longer possible because of a permanent physical injury.

5. “You can be anything you want to be.”

This was discussed above in the article. A better approach to this topic of their future is to be an encouragement to your child in regard to their hopes and dreams, but also the voice of reality (in a kind and sensitive manner).

As a parent, help them stay grounded in reality so that they can set life goals and ambitions that are attainable. You don’t want them to feel totally and utterly like a failure in life when they learn they are not making the pros with no other goals or prospects for the future even entertained. Don’t squash dreams, but help them also think about realistic and attainable goals, even if you have to present the idea to them as a “backup plan”. At least it will get them thinking about various, more realistic options, rather than one lofty goal that has less than a 1% chance of happening.

6. “Just be yourself and everything will be fine.”

This one can be especially hard on kids socially. Sometimes their behavior or actions are not socially accepted or welcomed by friends. If your daughter has a habit of “giving her friends a piece of her mind” every time they upset her, because that is just who she is as a person, then perhaps it’s time to make some adjustments. Just being yourself does not always have the best outcome. Sometimes it has negative outcomes. Your daughter will lose friends by giving them a piece of her mind on a regular basis.

Not all of our propensity traits are good ones. Sometimes we need to learn to manage the bad ones. More harm than good will be done in your daughter’s social circle if being herself alienates people. Let your child know it’s ok to be themselves unless they are doing something illegal, unethical, immoral, or harmful to others.

Being ourselves is not always acceptable to others and that is something that can help us decide if we need to make changes in ourselves or find new friends. The choice for change is up to each individual, which is more empowering than the falsehood that if you act like yourself all will be ok.

7. “Focus on the future and you will be a success.”

Whatever happened to allowing kids to be kids? It can do more harm than good when parents push their kids toward success by “focusing on the future”. Children in elementary school do not need to be thinking about what sports and extra curricular activities will help them get into a great college. So many adults and young adults self medicating with alcohol and drugs just because they have been stressing about their future since they were small children.

There will always be a future, stressing about it in childhood is more likely to lead to earlier burnout. It is also more likely to push the child toward bad habits and choices in order to self medicate and relieve stress. Don’t push your child toward bad choices or burnout by stressing them out about their future. Allow your child to be a child and to experience the present.

Psychology Today discussed research that found happy people were more successful in life.[1] Research also showed that happier people are better equipped to handle stress in life. Allow your child happiness by letting them live in and enjoy the present. Don’t put their childhood in fast forward by having them focus on the future. Happy children and people live their lives in the present and not the future. Children will be more successful if you allow them the joy of living in the present and not the future.

8. “All you need for success in life is to work hard.”

This piece of advice is a farce that some families embrace for generations. Just because someone works 16 hours a day and does their job well doesn’t mean they are going to be a success. People can be working at a dead end job with no chance of promotion. Working smart will give you a better chance at success than hard work alone.

Working hard is a good trait, but it needs to be paired with working smart. Say a family has two children. They grow up and one believes that hard work is the key to success so he stays in the same job working up and getting promoted, yet he works 16 hours a day and can only be promoted so far in the company because he doesn’t have any special skills. The other child believes in working smart. This person tries to take courses and equip himself with new skills. He selects a career field that is in high demand. He continues to climb higher in his career field afterwards. The second sibling has more opportunities because he isn’t limited because of not having any skills. The second sibling sees a career field that is in demand, so he equips himself with skills needed in that field. Both have worked hard, but the second worked smarter because they aren’t going to dead end in their career because of not having a degree.

This is just an example. Not all careers and jobs require special skills or a college education, but you need to help your child figure out what their idea of success in their desired career looks like. Help them see what decisions need to be made, to make smarter moves toward achieving that goal. Work smart to achieve, not overworking yourself into a dead end.

Every Single Piece of Advice Parents Give Does Matter

Many parents may have recognized themselves in some of these advice scenarios. Most parents mean well, as they want their children to grow up to be successful and happy.

However, you can now see that some of the advice parents are giving needs to be changed. Recognizing the problem is the first key toward change. Next is developing a plan for what you will say the next time the subject arises.

Having a plan for what you will say will help you be prepared to provide helpful advice that will benefit your child in the long term. Write down your new found advice so that you can reflect and remember the wisdom or advice you want to pass onto your child to help them.

Featured photo credit: Stocksnap via stocksnap.io

Reference

[1] Psychology Today: Happy People Succeed

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