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Whether it's potty training, involvement in sports, or academic excellence, parents sometimes struggle to find a delicate balance between setting high standards and pushing their children too far. For the past decade, Daryl Capuano, educator and founder of The Learning Consultants in New Haven, Conn., has been counseling parents on understanding key igniters in motivating children and the harmful effects of nagging.
"As a parent, you need to be in charge of inspiring your child," says Capuano. "However, if by 'inspiring' you mean 'nagging' or 'criticizing,' you should know that nagging is not effective in the long term, even though it is sometimes the most efficient way to get a result in the short term." There are potential pitfalls when you push your child too far.
When a child hears a message repeatedly, she starts to view it as a big negative. If you often tell your child, "You are not going to get into college if you don't study harder," she might avoid studying or any discussion of college. She could begin to slack off on homework or even skip school. This pressure creates a significant motivation deflation, warns Capuano. Even a very young child will lose interest in playing baseball if he fears he's not measuring up to his parents' expectations. Be supportive and praise accomplishments, but don't lose track of your purpose.
"It is only through accomplishing things that children develop earned self-esteem," says Dr. Eric Herman, a clinical psychologist at Children's Hospital of Michigan in Detroit. When a parent pushes too much, the result is an overwhelmed child who is too stressed out to get things done. Your child needs to relax and have fun. It will help him recharge his batteries, just as relaxation helps you recharge your batteries for work.
When kids are pushed and suffer stress, they also experience anxiety and depression, which can surface as physical symptoms like headaches and stomach pain, says psychotherapist Mary Jo Rapini, author of "Parents Ask," a monthly advice column for "Houston Family" magazine.
If your 12-year-old son is having trouble in math, he may be so overwhelmed and afraid that he feels sick each Friday before his math test. First, take him to the doctor to rule out any physical issues. Talk to your son when there is no stress. He needs to know that both you and his father are supportive and believe in him. Assure him that there's a solution. You can provide love and support that will help him get through this difficult time and teach him coping and problem-solving skills for life, says Rapini.
Loni Coombs, author of "You're Perfect ... and Other Lies Parents Tell," has a unique perspective on parenting in today's world. As a former prosecutor for the Los Angeles District Attorney's Office, she saw family after family face the reality that their children weren't perfect. In her book, she relays a story of a mother saying to her young daughter, "If you don't mind me right now, Santa Claus won't come." Initially, the threat worked and resulted in instant obedience. The mother repeated the phrase for weeks until one day her daughter simply replied in a quiet, defeated voice, "I don't care anymore if Santa comes or not."
Coombs advises parents to "be open and communicative with your child about your reasons for wanting her to do what you are asking." Don't just use a "Because I said so!" attitude.
Some children inwardly suppress sadness and depression, while others display outward signs of anger. They may act out at home or in school. "For the antiauthoritarian child, rebelling against authority is the only way to secure freedom," says Capuano. "When such children are constantly being barked at by their parents, their resolve to rebel will only increase." Use a calm and caring approach with your child.
Altered Parental Relationship
A parent-child relationship can transform from unconditional-love-giver-to-child to one that more resembles boss-to-employee, says Capuano. This might be the most significant and saddest effect of all. A child who only a few years ago was happy to play with mommy now wants to avoid mommy, much the way a worker wants to avoid his boss. If a child becomes conditioned to work only when nagged, he remains outer-directed. If he doesn't transition into being self-directed, he inevitably will flounder when his parents are not around to direct him.