There was a time, not so long ago, when bottle feeding your baby and letting them “cry it out” was practically a patriotic duty. Then came self-esteem building, attachment parenting and a strong movement back towards breastfeeding. Add to that the great body of parenting folklore culled from across the ages (didn’t you know that giving them bread crusts to eat will make their hair curly, while carrots will improve their vision?), and it can be incredibly difficult as a new parent to tell whether you’re turning your kids into superheroes or single-handedly ruining their lives. More recently, the rise of parenting advice blogs has led to the development of some supportive communities for sorting out all of these conflicting ideas (and, well, just for venting about what a day with kids is like), while others have served only to increase each parent’s access to a wellspring of unsolicited opinions and judgmental biases. So, just what advice should you follow and what should you leave by the wayside? We’ve taken a look at all of the data and accompanying anecdotes for a sense of what works and what doesn’t.
1. When in Doubt, Ask for Cash…Ermh… “Savings”
Do it! Here’s a fact about little ones: they’re far more interested in the wrapping paper and box than they are in the actual present they contain. Obvious, right? Then why do we still feel that when friends and family ask what they should get the kids for their birthdays/the holidays/just because, we have to rack our brains for a gift they’re going to outgrow either physically or mentally in a matter of months? Cold, hard cash would obviously be far more useful to receive when the kids are young, as you’d be able to just go out and buy the things you know they need. But since cash is still a taboo thing to ask for, asking for something like savings bonds is a much better way to go, as they’ll grow right along with your little tyke. Is there really a better gift, after all, then sending your kid off to college with spending money or even without student debt? That’s a possibility when you go this route. Granted, once your child is past a certain age and has more of a will of their own, savings bonds are about as interesting as socks, so this tip may have a shelf life.
2. Joke Around
Do it! As parents, it’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day tasks of family life, whether that’s sneaking in a load of laundry in the precious 15 minutes they actually nap or disciplining unacceptable behavior. But, you know, laughing matters too. In fact, taking the time to joke and play with your child will not only help you both relax and enjoy your relationship a bit more, but it will also help teach your child how to handle life’s stresses and navigate social situations. Additionally, as a parent, it’s important to make peace with the fact that you’re just not going to win every battle, and that if you try to, you’ll probably meet an early grave. While you want to be consistent, of course, don’t forget to jar yourself every now again, let go and smile.
3. Praise Your Kids. A Lot. For Everything.
Don’t do it! For years, child development experts heavily promoted self-esteem-building parenting based on lavishing praise for just about everything. When you hear people complain about how everyone at the t-ball championships gets a trophy whether or not they win, this is exactly what they’re referring to. Turns out, constant praise actually lowers self-esteem. Why? It makes it impossible for the child to sort out what praise is coming from simply existing and what is stemming from actual hard work and achievement. Put another way, it puts too much of an emphasis on being great “just the way you are,” and not enough emphasis on working to achieve a goal. Accordingly, when an overly praised child encounters anything remotely challenging — which pretty much summarizes all of learning — they’re far more likely to give up than to push through. In the long term, this leads to a lack of self-discipline and achievement, and yes, lowered self-esteem. However, that’s not to say we need to return to the kind of boarding school atmosphere you’d encounter in a Roald Dahl book. Instead, just save your praise for moments when your child truly does something amazing. Every other time, provide warm, positive feedback focused more on the work they’re putting in than their intrinsic ability. That means saying something like, “You’re doing a great job learning piano and I know if you keep on working hard you’re going to really excel,” rather than, “Wow, you’re so talented at piano!” Not only will this inspire your child to keep at it with discipline and hard work, but it also means that should they “fail” anywhere down the line, they’ll take it as a matter of needing to continue working hard, rather than some intrinsic lack of ability.
4. Create a Bedtime Routine as Early as Possible
Do it! Yes, yes, I know, setting a bedtime routine is easier said than done, but doing so will make your whole family happier, child included. It will also give your child an initial sense of structure and routine, which will make transitions into school and preschool easier further down the line. And if you incorporate reading into the routine as well, you’ll be killing two birds with one stone, setting them up for a lifetime of literacy and learning.
5. Clean. Everything. All the Time.
Don’t do it! I mean sure, clean, but chill out a bit about it. Yes, the world is a filthy, germ-ridden place, but in fact many common health tips are actually old wives’ tales. Plus, your kid won’t build up an immune system without some exposure, and if you’re using harsh chemicals to clean, you’re doing more damage than good — especially if you’re relying heavily on cleaners with any kind of antibiotic, as this can increase and spread antibiotic resistance. Of course, this isn’t a call to send your kids to the ICU just for funsies. Hygiene is still a must, but relax knowing that hand washing, vaccination, and keeping high-germ areas like the kitchen and the bathroom cleaner than others will pretty much have you covered.
6. Don’t compare yourself to other parents
Do it! Ermh, meaning, take this advice and stop comparing yourself to other parents. Why? Because many different parenting approaches work, and it’s better to find what works for you and your family than to worry too much about what everyone else is doing. Not only will this drive you crazy and set you up for failure, but you’ll also do a poor job of implementing someone else’s technique when it doesn’t feel like you. “Yes, eat all of those Brussels sprouts, or else you’ll… die or something…” Other parents can be good for exchanging horror stories and some manner of tips, but this can also easily turn into feeling bad about your supposed “failures.” What’s more, not only are you an individual with your individual parenting style, but your kid is an individual too, and they’re bound to develop at their own rate and in their own way. Unless it’s an important milestone, like talking before the age of, say, five, just go with your gut, trust your instincts, and try not to get too caught up in what other people have to say.
7. Take Time for Yourself (and Go Easy on Yourself!)
Do it! To piggyback on the above, it’s important to embrace the idea that you’re not always going to be the “perfect parent.” The more you can laugh about it, the lower your blood pressure will be, and the more your kids will benefit. The same goes for taking time out to indulge yourself, whether that means heading to the spa for a massage or taking 10 minutes to enjoy your morning coffee before waking the kids up. If you’re trying to be a superparent, you probably feel you need to be on all the time, but you’ll be more refreshed and ready to embrace the kid-filled day if you’re taking at least some care of your own needs. And hey, the older the tykes get, the more they can thrive without you anyway. Isn’t that what they call independence?
Doling out parenting advice is an international pastime. While there’s much to learn, there’s also much to reject. As the person who lives with your kids day in and day out, you’ve got the best sense of what’s working and what’s not. While you certainly want to be open to feedback, especially from professionals like teachers and psychologists, don’t let an internet word of advice weigh you down. Have fun with it, and do you like you do, you parenting rock star, you!