Myths About Good Parenting

Author: Beth Russell Ph.D.(C)

1. Being a good parent means sacrificing your needs for the child.

False – Children need to see a balance of caring for others and for themselves. We spend a lot of time and energy teaching our young children to “act like a big kid” and do things for themselves. Self care skills like self-feeding, toileting on their own, and dressing themselves, are hugely important to American families because our culture places a high value on being independent. If we agree with our cultural ideas about what it means to be mature, responsible, and autonomous as adults, then we are likely to want these qualities in our children – teaching them self-care skills is the first step on this path. Bringing children up to have the confidence to do things for themselves can be hard because children start as infants who are entirely dependent on their parents.

In a way, childhood is the process of teaching the next generation how to go from being completely reliant on their caretakers, to standing on their own as independent individuals. Children learn quickly by watching and imitating the world around them, so one of the easiest ways to teach them is to model the skill you have in mind. Yes, it is important that we model generosity, humility, and self-sacrifice for our children, but it is also important that they know how to take care of themselves and that means showing them we can do that, too. Your child should see an example of how to balance the needs of loved ones with his or her own needs – not the complete surrender of one in favor of the other – so when you need to take a break, do it and know that you are beginning to teach your child the importance of taking care of yourself.

2. It doesn't matter if you show your emotions around a baby, they're too young to understand anyway.

False – The emotions that you show do matter to your baby. Baby's react to facial expressions in a very basic way from birth, and they get more and more skilled at understanding what they see on your face from then on. Within the first few months babies will begin to look to their caregivers for cues on how they should react to the world around them – this is called social referencing - they are using their social relationships as references for understanding what they see.

"Within the first few months babies will begin to look to their caregivers
for cues on how they should react to the world around them."

When a 2 year old falls down on the playground they will almost always look to their caretaker before they cry. If the caretaker looks worried or gasps, the toddler is very likely to cry regardless of whether they are hurt. In this example, the toddler understands that the gasp and look of concern mean that something worrisome has happened, so they react along with the example they were given. The same thing is true on a more basic level of younger babies – they will smile when smiled at far before they understand what smiling means, and they will cry when they see another child cry in much the same way.

Young babies may not understand what is going on when they see you scowl or cry, but they will react to it, and within the first 12 to 18 months they will understand that you aren't happy (though it will take much longer before they understand why you are upset). It is important that children see you sad and frustrated because those emotions are a normal and healthy part of the human experience, but what they especially need when they are young is to see that you can recover from those emotions, too. Showing them the deep breath, the hug, and the smile that goes into feeling better is also an important thing for them to see. Social referencing is an early step in developing empathy – caring about and relating to how others feel – and an important consideration for parents when deciding how to show their emotions.

3. Parents who leave their crying baby alone will give the baby abandonment issues.

False – Babies are not emotionally scarred when their caretakers leave them for brief periods of time. The distress you hear when you leave the baby's line of sight may be because the baby doesn't understand that you are still there even if they can't see you. Learning that things out of sight still exist is called object permanence and it takes about 8-10 months for babies to get there. Before then, it is pretty upsetting for a caretaker to leave, because the baby thinks they have gone permanently. Even if babies understand that you will come back and haven't mysteriously vanished into mist when you leave the room, they may still cry from separation anxiety.

"The distress you hear when you leave the baby's line of sight may because
the baby doesn't understand that you are still there even if they can't see you."

This distress is normal and healthy and is one way psychologists measure the strength of the relationship between parent and infant – babies should be a bit sad when their caretakers leave. They should also be happy to see their caretakers return, and that is the crucial part: Babies need to practice watching their caretakers leave and having them return after short periods of time. The reunion that happens when a parent comes back to the baby is reassuring and begins to reinforce the idea that although parents will inevitably have to leave from time to time, they always return. Both object permanence and separation anxiety are normal developmental processes that end within the first 2 years for most families, and practice at brief separations is a good way to help babies have confidence that their loved ones will always come back to them.