The truth behind those words of wisdom from Dear Old Mom based on what the new science says about child development and parenting advice
Remember the sage motherly advice that was the soundtrack to your childhood? If you’re not sure how much of her philosophy to keep and how much to take with a grain of salt, let the research decide. I consulted with recent scientific studies and weigh in on whether Mom really knew her stuff.
Over the past decade significant research has unearthed proven ways parents can influence their children’s emotional, social, and mental health. I combed hundreds of the best studies as I was writing The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries. Yes, some of the research confirms that Mom knew what she was talking about. But some of it completely dispels classic parenting advice.
It’s always better to examine the evidence than to blindly accept Mom’s (or anyone else’s) dogma. And fortunately, there are plenty of research studies out there whose findings can form the basis of a healthy parenting philosophy—one that greatly improves the odds of raiding happy, healthy, resilient kids. Read on for a true or false quiz that sheds light on some of those classic motherhood maxims—and easy-to-use solutions for maximizing your own parenting success.
Mother Maxim #1: “When it comes to kids, you’ve got to pour on the praise.”
VERDICT: FALSE! It’s okay to be proud of our kids and certainly to encourage them when they’ve done well. But we have to be careful how we praise our kids. Research shows that praise is only effective if we use the right kinds of words. Columbia University found that praise that stretches achievement, attention span, as well as persistence and the ability to bounce back was the praise that focused on the child’s effort.
Problem is, most parents tend to stress the child’s intelligence, showering them with accolades such as “You’re so smart”—and the praise backfires. Children who are praised for their intelligence assume that success is solely a matter of how smart he is and not in how hard he works. The result: a fixed mind set, with detrimental long-lasting effects.
Of course you should praise your child when she deserves acknowledgement. But the emphasis should be on her effort. Rather than gushing about her IQ, say ‘I am so proud of how hard you are working.’
Stressing the process, the hard work or stick-to-it-ness, and not the end product, like a grade or final score is what matters.
And be aware that adding ’because‘ makes the praise more specific so the child knows exactly what he did to deserved the praise—making him much more likely to repeat the action. So the next time you want to pour on the praise, consider saying something new: ‘You really stuck it out that time without giving up. Way to go!’ It can go a long way to keeping kids motivated and working hard.”
Mother Maxim #2: “Don’t be afraid to say to no.”
VERDICT: TRUE! Loving your kids and wanting them to be happy doesn’t mean that you have to be the yes-man in their lives. Saying yes to our kids every whim does not do them any favors. In fact, it can actually lower their self-esteem and cause them to become more materialistic.
A University of California at Davis study followed 7,500 tweens for seven years and found those with the highest self-esteems were raised in homes that were warm but also less permissive. Translation: they lived in a household that had structure, clear rules and a parent who was not afraid to say no.
Need more convincing? In a study by the University of Minnesota it was discovered that the more materialistic a child is, the less happy and appreciative he is, which actually increases his risk for depression.
My first advice to parents is to take an honest assessment of their parenting by using what I call the Wall-Mart Test. How does your child respond to being told ‘no’ in the toy and candy aisle? And how often do you have to repeat yourself before she knows you are serious? The average kid whines nine times before getting her way. So don’t give in.
If you are prone to saying yes too easily, use stall tactics like telling your child ‘maybe’ or that you plan to think about it. It will give you time so you can say no a bit more fervently because you know it’s the right thing to do. When you do say no, make sure you mean it. And if your kid asks why, simply tell them that ‘no’ builds their character and raises their self- esteem.”
A recent University of Minnesota study revealed a simple way to curb materialism and the gimmes. It found that if you compliment ‘inside’ qualities such as your child’s kindness, her smile, or display of respect it decreases materialism in children. By shifting the focus to who they are instead of what they own, your kids will ask for less and will do it much less often. In other words, their self-worth won’t be tied into their possessions.
Mother Maxim #3: “Your child should clean his plate at every meal.”
VERDICT: False!! Remember all those nights as a kid when you were forced to stay at the dinner table until every last bite was eaten off your plate? For years, mothers have been encouraging their children to become members of “the clean plate club” in hopes of encouraging them to expand their palettes and receive necessary nutrition. However, that the new parenting science suggests that when children are forced to clean their place it actually increases picky eating habits, not to mention creating stressful meal time battles. But taking peas and broccoli off the menu isn’t the answer, either. Research shows us that it can take some time for kid’s taste buds to kick in, so instead of throwing in the towel (or the veggies) take your time and try, try again.
The new research shows that it takes a calm, repeated exposure to a new food—especially vegetables–for up to two weeks at a time for a child to overcome a food aversion. Only after that time should you go back to the drawing board with your menu.
Choose one new food item at a time to introduce in small, teaspoon-size portions along with and serve it alongside some familiar staples to increase the likelihood that your child will try and like the new food.
I recommend you do take one cue from the dinnertimes or your past: Encourage your Mom’s “One Bite Rule” with your own children. They don’t have to like a new food, but they do have to try at least one small bite.”
Mother Maxim #4: “A child must always write a thank you note when she receives a gift!”
VERDICT: TRUE! Mom was right on this one. For the past decade two professors at the University of California at Davis and Southern Methodist University, have examined the data of several hundred people involved in their gratitude experiments. They had people to keep a journal, writing down five things they were grateful for that had happened to them in the past week for four days a week. Those simple gratitude exercises made those participants feel happier and more optimistic, caused them to sleep better, be less stressed, and to feel less materialistic and more likely to help others. A thank you note follows the same principle. It teaches children the art of gratitude, and it causes them to put some thought and consideration into the things they have— a great way to combat the ‘gimmies’ our kids are so susceptible to in today’s materialistic society.
You absolutely should require those thank you notes. To maximize the gratitude effect, have your child personally deliver the card or read it over the phone to the recipient. You can also adopt simple gratitude habits as a family such as saying a thanksgiving prayer at each meal, or counting your blessings together at nighttime. You can even have your family members to keep gratitude journals several times a week where they can write or draw things they feel grateful for.
Mother Maxim #5: “If you’re old enough to read, you’re too old for a bedtime story.”
VERDICT: FALSE! In the past, it was thought that if a child was old enough to read, then it would increase his ability if he read things for himself. However, says that recent research shows that kids stop reading for enjoyment around the age of eight—the same age when most parents stop reading aloud to their kids. A survey by Scholastic magazine also discovered that if kids don’t continue to read for pleasure beyond the age of 8, their love of reading never picks up again. Reading increases comprehension, vocabulary, imagination and attention, but it can also make for some fond family memories. Studies also show that parents play a crucial role influencing the reading attitudes and behaviors of older children as well—so brush off that library card and give story time at your house a second try!
Scholastic’s survey also uncovered that 89% of kids say their favorite books are the ones they pick themselves and a big reason they don’t read is that they don’t like what their parents selected for them. So be sure to get your child involved in the selection of books for reading time at home. Kids and parents have also been known to blame a lack of time as one of the biggest reasons they don’t for fun, so make it a priority to carve out some time each week to devote to books. Eliminating just one TV show or activity will free up 30 minutes a week to read.
Most importantly, no matter how old your kids are, don’t stop reading aloud. Find one favorite that the whole family can enjoy together and devote a few minutes each week to sharing the story aloud. It’s a great way to keep your kids involved in reading while spending some quality bonding time together.
Final Mother Maxim: “You know your child best…even better than your Mom!”
VERDICT: TRUE! (Just do consult the new child development research every now and then. The new studies really are profound). With parenting, as with anything else, we do what we know. As we face challenges with our kids, it’s natural to look to our own parents as the guides for what to do and how to act. And there are a lot of motherly “truths” that have been floating around the parenting world for some time. You know, those rules and philosophies moms subscribe to simply because their own mothers did—because “That’s how I was raised and I turned out just fine!” But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be so quick to bank on this (pun alert!) mother lode of maternal wisdom.
Remember, no one..NO ONE…knows your child better than you. And that’s the truth.
I am an educational psychologist, parenting expert, TODAY show contributor and author of 22 books including The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries. You can also refer to my blog, Dr. Borba’s Reality Check for ongoing parenting solutions and late-breaking news and research about child development.
My new book, UNSELFIE: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World will be in print June 2016. (Yahoo!) I’ve spent the last five years researching and writing this book as well as literally flying around the world to find the best ways we can activate our children’s hearts. My goal is to create a conversation that makes us rethink or view of success as exclusively grades, rank and score and includes traits of humanity! It’s filled with common-sense solutions based on the latest science to help us raise compassionate, caring, courageous kids. It’s time to include “empathy” in our parenting and teaching!
Research for this blog was based on several chapters from my book, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries.
Parents increased their 2-6 year olds like for a previously disliked vegetable by giving their child a taste of one targeted vegetable daily for 14 days; J. Wardle; L.J. Cooke, E.L. Gibson, M. Sapochnik, A. Sheiham, M. Lawson, “Increasing Children’s Acceptance of Vegetables; A Randomized Trial of Parent-Led Exposure,” Appetite, Apr. 2003, 40(2), 155-62.
Food skepticism common with young kids; repeatedly offer same item up to two weeks: K. Severson, The New York Times, Oct. 10, 2007.
Kids & Family Reading Report, Scholastic.