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 expect a 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.
3. Being Afraid of "No"
One of the things that most surprised me when I moved to the States was how rarely I heard parents say "no." When confronted with poor or even dangerous behavior, Americans do far more negotiating, pleading and tolerating than their European counterparts.
"No" is a powerful tool, and it's high time American parents reclaimed it. It's best paired with a concise, simple explanation: "No, you can't touch the oven, it's hot and it could burn you." "No, you mustn't hit your brother, because that hurts his body." Doing this helps establish that your rules aren't arbitrary.
However, don't get caught up in justifying rules to your child. I only explain once, or twice at the most. After that, if the behavior continues, I say a simple but firm no, and move them away from whatever it is. For toddlers with limited listening comprehension, follow the simple explanation with a distraction.
"No" doesn't have to be angry, and children shouldn't automatically worry that they're in trouble. Parents often display anger when they're frustrated or frightened -- much better to go to your child, get down on his level, touch him and calmly but firmly deliver your message. Wielding a firm "no" is especially important for those times when you can't get to your child fast enough to prevent bad or dangerous behavior. I love using the game "Red Light, Green Light" to teach them to respond to No and Stop, especially where their safety is concerned. With "red light," there's no explanation needed, but they know they have to stop!
For more, click here to see my new video with 4 tips for using no effectively.
4. Tolerating Disorderly Bedtime
Along with being a nanny, I've worked as a baby sleep consultant. I've had clients all over the world, but nowhere is there more call for help with getting kids to bed than in America.
Because of that, I wasn't surprised when I came across this article about how parents around the world describe their kids. Among other things, it compares American attitudes to bedtime and schedule regularity with European ones.
The research and interviews with parents revealed what I'd already discovered: When faced with a fussy child at bedtime, American parents entertain, distract and placate, where Europeans enforce the schedule. The American way, of course, essentially rewards children for waking, shortsightedly giving them attention and stimulation at a time when they really need rest. When parents are driving round the block or waking up to give yet another feed or bottle, it results in poorer sleep for everyone.
5. Skipping Over Manners
Many American parents are shockingly lax about teaching their children good manners. I've even met parents who gave up insisting on table manners at home because they thought it was too much effort! But without consistent reinforcement, it's impossible to summon proper manners in the situations that really require them. When your child has dinner with his boss as an adult, you don't want him to be desperately trying to remember which fork to use for salad and whether his glass is on the right or left.
Looking at the graphs from the Atlantic article mentioned above, we can see a clear pattern. All the top words American parents use to describe their children, like "intelligent," "independent," and "rebellious," focus solely on the individual child, as though American children develop in vacuums. In contrast, the other countries favor descriptions that acknowledge social development and interaction, like "easy," "even-tempered," or even Spain's "good character" and "socially mature." And what are good manners, after all, if not a set of social skills and habits that help people get along with one another? The absence of words about manners and positive social behavior from Americans' parenting vocabulary reveals quite a bit about their priorities: American parents are more likely to care that their children are "cognitively advanced" than that they are polite or conscientious.
Of course, not every American parent makes these mistakes, and not every British or European parent is innocent of them. But like fish in water, we can be blind to the environment around us, and take for granted bad habits ingrained in the culture. By taking a step back and looking objectively at some of our cultural assumptions, we can become better, more aware parents and caregivers.