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The Top 5 Worst Mistakes American Parents Make

Here’s an excerpt from my Huffington Post article: The Top 5 Worst Mistakes American Parents Make.

During my years as a nanny, I’ve had the pleasure of working with some truly fantastic American mums and dads. I’ve often marveled at how American parents teach children that anything they set their minds to is possible, and how despite the fact that American parents work longer hours than their European counterparts, they still make time to raise strong, healthy families.

However, after working in England, Germany and the United States and hearing from friends who live all over the world, I’ve noticed a few places where modern American parents could use a bit of extra coaching.

And it really is modern parenting that’s at fault for most of these shortfalls — British, American and Continental parenting styles were quite similar until a generation ago. It’s time to take a steady look at what traditional American and European parents knew, but modern American parents seem to have forgotten: Here are the top five mistakes that modern American parents make.

1. Regimenting time, not behavior
It’s no secret American children are overscheduled, but the real problem is that American parents spend energy creating boundaries around what kids are doing, rather than how they’re doing it.

My last article mentioned one mum who’s a perfect example of this problem. She signed her daughter up for swimming lessons and brought her on time each week, but didn’t invest time in helping her cope with losses and setbacks. Learning the backstroke is great, but learning to process disappointment is infinitely more valuable.

Parents in Britain sign their children up for lessons, practice and play dates, too, but they are even more focused on correcting misbehavior and encouraging success. When I was growing up in England, my parents would have been absolutely horrified by some of the behavior tolerated by Americans exhausted from shuffling kids from rehearsal to soccer practice.

2. Setting the Bar Too Low 
American parents famously suffer from “everyone gets a trophy syndrome,” congratulating children for showing up to sporting events rather than winning and pushing grade inflation higher and higher.

But this is just one facet of a larger problem: setting low expectations for children’s behavior.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a parent — usually an American one — come to me and say that their child just can not sit properly through a meal or keep from melting down on a trip to the grocery store. Invariably, it’s because the parents have come to expecta tantrum or a fight, and the child duly obliges.

“I don’t know,” they say, shaking their heads. “Jack just can’t sit at the table for that long.” When I say that he can, parents often don’t believe me — until they try it out, establish higher expectations, and watch as their child rises to the occasion.

Children all over the world misbehave and make mistakes, but American parents seem peculiarly inclined to make excuses for their children’s horrid behavior. A few weeks ago, I went out to supper with a friend, and the family at the table next to ours had two children who were running around and spilling salt and pepper all over the table. When one of them made a mad dash and bumped into my friend’s chair, his mum came over and scooped him up. “Sorry,” she said, smiling, “he missed his nap today and he’s a little wired.” But she never corrected his behavior, and sure enough, five minutes later they were off again running around like maniacs.

Of course, it’s important to acknowledge the connection between behavior and environment, and adults must be sensitive to children’s limitations. But while being tired may be a factor, it doesn’t excuse poor behavior. Don’t be afraid to establish expectations, and hold your children accountable.

Please visit the Huffington Post Parents blog to read the full article.

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Speaking of Marriage

Winifred M. Reilly, M.A., MFT

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