Several millennia of trying to raise children not to be monsters has made us think that we’re getting pretty good at the whole parenting game. As such, there are plenty of parenting techniques that seem like common sense. That is, until science comes in and points out how your well-meaning habits are in fact making things worse. We’re talking about things like …
#6. Avoiding Arguing In Front Of Them
Please note before we go any further that “arguing” is not the same as “fighting.”
Good parents never want to have arguments in front of their children. (“Go to your room! Your father and I need to have a talk.”) For one thing, you need to present a united front. Otherwise, those damn kids are going to walk all over you. But also, nobody wants to traumatize their children by giving the impression that their marriage isn’t always bliss.
No one wants to be the parent whose child drops an F-bomb over whose turn it is to pretend to cook.
In reality, it’s much better to expose your kids to marital conflict, as long as you do it right. The world is full of conflict, as it turns out, and it’s better to acclimatize them to it early than to throw them out into society with the skewed perception that people never disagree. You’ll wind up with a kid who assumes that any argument with their buddy means the friendship is over. “Are you calling me a liar? Well guess what? Kevin is my best friend now! You’re dead to me, Trevor!”
The key, of course, is that it has to be healthy conflict. Which unfortunately means that you have to get your own shit together first. Smashing plates against the wall and then downing a whole bottle of wine while your partner storms out to the nearest bar is not the kind of fight that’s going to teach your kid how to be a functional adult.
“All the booze is killing our family, and all the replacement plates are killing our credit.”
According to studies, the best effects on children are achieved by arguments that are mild to moderate, and resolved in front of them. That last part is important — parents who cut off an argument only to “resolve” it behind closed doors with some good old-fashioned makeup sex also aren’t helping. We’re sure that works out fine for you, but your kids probably don’t know what’s happening. All they know is that their parents went to bed angry, there were some weird breathy bumping noises, and then everything was magically okay again. “All right, Trevor. I think resolving this means we have to take off our clothes and wrestle.”
On the other hand, kids who see the whole drama — especially if it is done with love, support, and compromise — get a whole bunch of positive effects, including “better social skills and self-esteem … increased emotional security … better relationships with parents, [doing] better in school and [having] fewer psychological problems.”
Your family drama. Don’t plop your kid in front of a Brady Bunch marathon and call it day.
And the benefits continue into adulthood. Adults who reported seeing arguments at home had lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol when dealing with their own conflicts at home than those whose parents apparently never fought, or fought behind closed doors.
It all sounds obvious when you spell it out, but right at this moment, there’s still some annoyed mother/father in the kitchen muttering, “Enough. Not in front of the kids.”
#5. Helping Them With Their Homework
Ask any teacher: If there are two kids of similar intelligence levels in the same classroom, but one is struggling and one is not, there’s a good bet it relates to what’s going on at home. Right? The successful kid has a mom and dad helpfully walking them through their homework every night, while the struggling kid’s parents are screaming “Do your homework quieter, you little shit! I can barely hear myself smoking meth.”
But this may be one of those rare cases in which the meth addict has it right. Research done in 2014 showed that helping kids with their homework doesn’t have any positive impact on their ability to pass standardized tests, and the effect gets worse as they get older — to the point where helping teenagers with their homework can bring their grades down.
“So if you have four hours of homework, and I do two, how many more hours until you decide this is all fucking pointless?”
Sure, it’s great to have parents who make the kids do the homework, and who provide a safe, stable environment to do it in. But after that, it’s better to be hands-off. And no, they’re not just warning parents away from doing the homework for the kids; they’re saying that it’s bad news even to simply talk them through the work and help them do it themselves.
How is that possible, considering that’s exactly what their teacher does? Well, in short, parents aren’t teachers. Unless, you know, they literally are. The authors of the study believe that a significant factor is the fact that a lot of parents don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about and wind up guiding their kids to a bunch of wrong answers. As the kids get older and their homework gets harder, dad’s answers get wronger.
You sucked ass at algebra when you were 15. Being 25 years removed from it isn’t going to make you better.
Of course, we’re not saying that the average parent is dumber than middle school students. It’s the science saying it. At least one study has shown that up to 30 percent of parents lack confidence that they can help their kids with their math homework. And if they’re anxious about their math ability, they can pass this anxiety on to their child. Oh, and believe it or not, this also applies to sports. Kids perform worse when a parent is in the stands screaming encouragement. Because, you know, they sort of have a coach already.
In short, it’s better to let the pros do the teaching, and for mom and dad to stick to the parent stuff, like keeping the kids fed. Although, on that topic …
#4. Making Them Finish Their Meal
For some reason, little kids don’t seem to like eating a whole lot — even though, statistically, they’ll be morbidly obese when they grow up. Every dinnertime is a battle, and you watch in frustration as your kids play fork soccer with their peas and push the beans around while making submarine noises. So you lay down the law: They can’t leave the table until they’ve cleaned their plate, and the longer they screw around, the colder and grosser those mashed potatoes are going to get.
But here’s the crazy thing: Your kid might be dumb as a rock, but they know when they’re hungry and when they’re not. UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital advises that you shouldn’t force your kids to eat or punish them when they don’t. Otherwise, you’re reinforcing bad eating habits. If you’re trying to prevent obesity, then the worst thing you can do is program people when they’re young to never walk away from a pile of food until every scrap is inside them.
“Yes, the paper plate, too. That’s perfectly good fiber you’re throwing away.”
And beyond simply not being hungry, a significant reason kids don’t eat as much as you’d like is good old-fashioned defiance. They’re refusing to eat specifically because it pisses you off. A study conducted in 2006 took a bunch of preschoolers and observed their attitudes toward food when they were and weren’t being pressured to eat. What they found was that kids tended to eat more when nobody was bugging them about it. And those who were being pressured had more negative attitudes toward taste.
Consequently, one of the reasons your kids come to hate vegetables so much is probably that you try so hard to make them eat the damn things. So what do you do? Walk away and let them live off candy bars until they slip quietly into a diabetic coma? Actually, nutritionists recommend that you give your kids a variety of healthy options and let them eat what they want, and however much of it they want, without ranting at them about starving kids in Africa. If they don’t feel like eating it all, that’s fine, but don’t give up and make them a grilled cheese instead. The kid will insist it’s junk food or starvation, damn it, but they don’t mean it.
#3. Bathing Them Daily
Kids are kind of magical, in the sense that they somehow manage to have jam on their fingers even if you don’t have any jam in the house, and generally aren’t comfortable unless they’re covered head-to-toe in filth. So we teach them early to have a damn bath at least once a day to scrub the kid smell off. On top of the fact that the ability to not be encrusted in filth all day is what makes us human, you don’t want your child to be the stinky kid at school.
It’s a thin, thin line between letting kids be kids and a mandatory call to child services.
The only problem is that we’re scrubbing our kids way too clean. Researchers are finding that our children’s bathing habits are leading to an increase in eczema, because we’re washing off all the natural oils that keep their skin supple and soft. For babies in particular, researchers are saying that they should be bathed three times a week, if that. Obviously, the little poop buckets are going to need to be cleaned up now and then, but it’s important to follow up with some kind of moisturizing lotion to replace the good oils you sloughed off.
Even for older kids, the American Academy of Dermatology says that missing out on a few baths or showers a week is no big deal, and they only really need it when they actually get dirty, rather than it being mandated as a nightly ritual. A few times a week is probably fine. It’s only when they hit puberty and their hormones turn them into greasy, pimply stink bombs that they need to start bathing every day.
On top of acne cream, alcohol swabs, and a half-dozen ointments, because nature hates 15-year-olds more than algebra does.
Remember that regular bathing is a very recent development in human history. We’re not built for it. Aside from leading to a rise in the aforementioned skin conditions, the habit of sterilizing our children has the side effect of giving them more allergies. An allergy is the result of the immune system getting confused and treating benign substances like dirt and pollen as if they’re invading viruses. The only way a body learns not to do that is by coming into contact with these substances and making friends with them. If we freak out every time our kids touch a dog and scrub them down like they opened an anthrax letter, then their bodies are more likely to freak out on their own the next time it happens.
#2. Baby Talk
When your baby first starts making sounds, it’s an irresistible human impulse to make sounds back at them in an attempt at speaking to them on “their level,” like you’re trying to learn some secret baby language. Enter a room full of new mothers, and it’s like stepping into a scene from Alice In Wonderland, with everyone babbling away in “goochy goo-goo goobie google” gibberish. It makes the babies happy, it makes the parents happy, and it makes non-parents drink. But it’s also causing problems down the road for that child’s literacy.
“See, ‘goggie’ isn’t in here anywhere.”
“That can’t be right. Check ‘G-A-U-G-H-I-E’ instead.”
Because babies are idiots and you know they’re not going to understand if you ask, “Hey Timmy, would you like to eat an apple as a mid-afternoon snack?” your impulse is to wave the apple in their face, raise the pitch of your voice two octaves, and say “Aaaaplllle? Aaaaaplllle?” But the thing is, babies are trying to learn how to speak our language. They’re not saying “gah-gah-gooble” to be cute; they’re actively trying to figure out how to communicate with us. When we repeat their own nonsense back to them, we’re confusing the shit out of their simple brains.
It sounds reasonable that you have to start kids on See Spot Run before you can expect them to make sense of The Wall Street Journal, but studies have shown that the kids with the best vocabularies and literacy skills are the ones whose parents ditched the baby talk and spoke to them in full, grammatically correct sentences from day one. Their advice is to have real conversations with your baby. Or at least, some rather one-sided conversations (“I asked you if you need anything from Whole Foods! ANSWER ME, INFANT!”).
“Milk again? Expand your horizons, kid.”
It’s not that your baby can fully understand you, but that they’ll learn to understand you more quickly, and everyone else in your social circle will probably thank you for it as well.
#1. Spending As Much Time With Them As Possible
The cruel Catch-22 of the modern world is that parents are choosing between giving their children time and giving them a decent standard of living. This is why 80 percent of kids movies involve at least one scene with a parent unable to make it to a dance recital because they’re too busy with their careers. If you have a job that pays for a college fund, then you spend every day at the office feeling guilty that you’re not at home, sure that your kids will grow up hating you. Single-parent families have it even worse.
Luckily, for a kid to care about you missing their little league game, they have to
give a shit about little league in general … which they don’t, so you should be good.
As it turns out, the good news for these families is that research says that kid’s outcomes are completely unrelated to the amount of time that parents spend with them. The sociologist conducting the research, Melissa Milkie, said that regardless of the metric you use to judge, it’s nearly impossible to find any relationship between how much time parents are able to spend with children and how those children do later in life. According to her studies, it seems that when parents are already stressed about balancing their work and family lives, the time they spend with their kids can impact them negatively, since they transfer that stress onto the child. You take a weekend off to go to the zoo, then nervously check your phone every five minutes. The kid feels guilty.
“Yes!” we can hear many of you are saying, “I’m going to close this article right now, because I finally have permission in writing to neglect my children! This is all I wanted from you, Cracked!”
“You heard the website, sweetie. Go play with your blocks or something. Daddy’s got a kill streak going.”
Hold on. The deal is that it’s about quality of time, not quantity. The theory goes that the working mom or dad who spends a couple of good hours a day playing, talking, and reading with the kids is having a better impact on their lives than a stay-at-home parent who sits around stressing out about money while their kids play in another room.
Milkie’s studies don’t say whether there’s a minimum amount of time you can spend with your kids and keep them well-adjusted; only that it’s definitely higher than zero. Again: DO NOT ABANDON YOUR CHILDREN.