Why You’re Not Ruining Your Kids

mother and daughterIt’s the secret fear every parent harbors: that the time we yell at the kids in the car, play Candy Crush instead of listening to their story, or fight with our spouse in front of them is going to be the time that scars them. The one they’ll end up talking about in therapy 20 years from now, as they try to piece back together their broken lives. It’s as if we’re one screw-up away from messing up our children in some permanent, Lifetime-made-for-television-movie kind of way.

It may come as a shock, then, to learn that we aren’t nearly as powerful as we fear (or is it hope?). For starters, besides what we’re commonly told these days, there are other important influences on kids besides their parents. In the famed Minnesota Twin Family Study, researchers found that personalities are formed half by our genes and half by environment, with “environment” comprising parents, schools, peers, media, etc. Which means that parents’ input is far less than 50%.

Once our kids hit pre-adolescence, peers hurtle forward in terms of their importance and influence. Multiple studies have highlighted peer influence as the single most important factor in drug use, smoking, and grades. In other words, who your child hangs out with can be more significant to his or her values than who raised him or her.

Even though our influence on our children is not all-encompassing, though, it is still valuable. So how do we make the most of the power we have? There is no guidebook for raising happy and healthy children. We do a lot of experimenting, tailoring our approaches to each new child and each new phase of development. Some of it will work and some won’t. Sometimes we will do a great job, other times we will fail. The key is not to do it perfectly but instead to do it with integrity and love.

Sometimes, our failures are wonderful opportunities. They’re a chance for us to model to our kids how to take responsibility, make amends, and accept our own flaws. Kids learn as much from failure—ours and theirs—as they do from success. Children who never witness their parents fighting miss out on some important lessons—how to tolerate conflict; how to repair after a fight; how to accept that all relationships go through struggles. And when parents are accountable for their mistakes and apologize, we’re passing those skills down.

In addition, the quality of resiliency (the ability to recover quickly from setbacks) is considered one of the main characteristics of happy people. And your kids can’t be resilient if they’ve never been knocked down. So even though we’d like to do whatever we can to protect our kids from being hurt or seeing us mess up, they’re actually gaining potential future happiness through seeing us be real and through their own struggles.

Of course, there are some behaviors that do create long-lasting, deep wounds to our children. They may leave children with damaged psyches, and images of themselves as being unworthy and unable to cope. These include:

  • Physical abuse
  • Verbal abuse
  • Neglect
  • Telling them they are worthless, bad, evil, or unlovable
  • Mixing love and support with abuse and endangerment

The good news: if you’re not doing those things, you’re not damaging your children. If you are reasonably consistent, mostly loving, often available, and a decent listener, you are providing your kids with the building blocks they need to form a solid sense of self and base of confidence. They need to know we’re there for them, seeing them and valuing them. Conversely, they do not need us to be perfect, constant, infallible robots. Children blossom when they know that their primary caretakers love them. Ask yourself, do you show your child your love? Do you do your best for your child? Do you abstain from abuse? If the answers are yes, yes, and yes, you are doing what you’re supposed to be doing.

So rest easy knowing that, sure, screaming at the car in front of you in a traffic jam teaches your little one some words he or she ought not be hearing at his or her tender age. But it’s not going to ruin your child. At worst, you’ll merely have some explaining to do when he or she repeats your phrases at preschool.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Vicki Botnick, MA, MS, MFTI, Parenting Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Janie

    October 21st, 2014 at 11:03 AM

    you always hear all of these things like the things you say are going to make your kids bad, but I think back on how I was raised and you know I didn’t have parents of the year and we are all ok. I don’t in any way think that this means that you intentionally treat your kids bad, but you know we are all gonna yell from time to time, it just comes out, and the kids will be ok even if you have a slip up

  • andrea f

    October 21st, 2014 at 2:45 PM

    There are too many of us who have been made to feel like we have to be supermom all the time and honestly, this is exhausting me! I feel guilty when I show one ounce of my own emotions for I have been made to fear that this will rub off on the kids and that if I am having a bad day like we all do from time to time then this ill cause them to have a bad day too.
    Enough already
    We are all human and have to experience the ups with the downs. Of course we sdon’t want to do anything that will physically harm our children, but we have to let them see that part of being human is not being supermom but having real feelings and emotions all the time. This isn’t something that we should have to feel ashamed of.

  • Martin

    October 21st, 2014 at 4:38 PM

    Children are pretty resilient and half the time I think that mine are not listening to me anyway so there you go

  • stressmom

    October 22nd, 2014 at 3:49 AM

    So we may not necessarily be harming them, but you know that the words and anythign else that comes at them is going to effect them in some way. Kids are resilient, yes, but they also take in every little thing that they see and that they hear so to think that what we do in our daily lives has little impact on them I would say is very wrong. I know that they should know how to deal with multiple situations, but we must also be careful about the things that we are exposing them to. Parents are their kids first real teachers- that carries a lot of weight!

  • janie

    October 22nd, 2014 at 9:56 PM

    I’m not a fan of this article. The attachment between a child and their caregivers are the most important, specifically during the formative years. And when things happen with the environment outside, it is them knowing they can bring that back to you that makes them feel safe in the world. I’m not saying it is black or white. .. you are ruining your kid or not. .. but that is the most important relationship. It is a lot of responsibility. Don’t minimize that.

  • Jennings

    October 23rd, 2014 at 3:55 AM

    We need to look at the flip side of this and think about the ways that we are helping them, and not so much hurting them. We are their prime role model from birth until they go to school most of the time so that is a lot of time to influence how they behave and what they believe. I take that job very seriously as I think any parent who cares this much about their children does. All we read about today are the things that we are all doing wrong and I think that this makes many parents feel bad about the job that they are doing when in reality I think that a lot of us are doing things right too. I just don’t want any of us to forget that being a parent is a very hard job. Moat of us are doing the best that we can and sometimes we have to accept that this is still good enough.

  • violet

    October 23rd, 2014 at 4:55 PM

    The main thing that we forget is that our parents never worried about whether or not they were harming us, they just disciplined us so that we could learn to be good people. Period. When did we stop worrying about that and start thinking about all of this other stuff instead that only makes most of feel like we are doing a horrible job at parenting?

    being a parent is hard, I think that we can all admit to that. Sometimes there is no right or wrong, it is all about working out what best fits for your own family and stayle. Some will like it and some won’t and that’s okay too. If it works for you and your family then they will have to deal with that.

  • Jay

    October 25th, 2014 at 10:22 AM

    It’s good to have some reassurance that if we are all of these things most of the times, then the few times we may crack under pressure and hand them less than our best… well, they will get over it.

  • Mimi

    November 13th, 2014 at 1:13 PM

    As parents we tend to avoid any negative feeling in our children, which sets them up for disappointment later on in life. Kids need to be exposed to the whole spectrum of emotions to learn how to deal with them. Even if that means an occasional angry outburst from mom, or being sent to the “thinking chair” by dad.
    In my opinion, there is too much pressure on parents to be perfect. We are questioning our every move and screening every word we say and how we say it, as a result of this pressure.
    Just be real -without being abusive or hurtful- love your kids and don’t forget to have fun raising them!

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