When my son was born two years ago, I was overcome with joy. But there was also a lingering sadness about the very tenuous relationship I had with my own mother, who often forgot to keep milk in the fridge and spent most nights out at parties. Now that I was a mom, the neglect I felt as a child resurfaced, fueling a fear that I might be destined to make the same mistakes.
What I was feeling is called "the ghost in the nursery," say experts. "Becoming a parent evokes memories and emotions from your own childhood," says Claire Lerner, a child-development specialist at Zero to Three, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit educational organization and coauthor of Bringing up Baby. "For better and worse, these feelings influence the way you parent: You may replicate what you experienced growing up or go to the opposite extreme with your own child." Here, experts address four of the most common issues from the past that can affect new parents -- and offer solutions for dealing with them.
Your parents were...too hands-on/too hands-off
If Mom and Dad were quick to negotiate your playground disputes in preschool and eager to write your English essays in college, you may have felt suffocated by the excessive attention. If they had you packing your lunch in kindergarten, you may have felt the opposite: neglected. "In both cases you probably didn't get enough guidance learning how to make decisions," says Gretchen Lovas, Ph.D., a developmental psychologist at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania.
Pitfall: being over-involved If your parents were hyper-concerned with your upbringing, you may feel that you can never do enough to encourage your child's development and wind up packing your baby's schedule with playdates and music classes. "This kind of pressure is unnecessary," says Shoshana Bennett, Ph.D., a psychologist and the president of Postpartum Support International. While we all harbor a certain fear that we're not doing as much as the mother down the block, treating your baby's day like a string of learning opportunities won't make him into a better person.
Easy fix: Set time aside every day to get down on the floor with your baby to read and play, work on puzzles, or fiddle with shape sorters. But watch for cues that he's getting overstimulated. All babies are different, says Lovas. "But they do send signals. When they break eye contact, turn their heads, or fuss, they've had enough."
Pitfall: being under-involved If Mom and Dad were too hands-off, you may be unsure of how to spend time with your baby without feeling intrusive. But daily one-on-one interaction with your child helps in teaching motor skills, creative problem solving, and social development. Every time you coo, clap, or smile proudly at your baby's accomplishments, she learns: "I'm loved." And that, says Amy Flynn, the director of The Family Center at The Bank Street College of Education in New York City, is an invaluable lesson.
Easy fix: When your infant is playing with a rattle, practicing standing up, or struggling to roll over, think of what can be called the "just-right" challenge, say experts. "You don't want to sit back and watch her struggle until she cries," says Flynn. "But you don't want to jump in and take over, either." Let her make some progress on her own, and if she starts to get frustrated, give her a hand.
Kyle Spencer is a freelance writer and mother of two in Brooklyn, New York, and author of She's Gone Country.
Your parents were...super-strict/too permissiveWhether you were raised in a hippie commune or a house on military time, you may have felt that your parents didn't strike the right balance between running a household and running you into the ground. While babies aren't ready for serious disciplining (children don't understand the concept of right and wrong until they're in preschool), it's important to start setting limits at about 6 months, when they begin to explore the world around them and risk accidents, choking, and yes, driving you a little nuts.
Pitfall: saying "no" too much If you're doling out "no's" faster than hugs, you're probably saying it too much, says Stephen Muething, M.D, a pediatrician at Cincinnati Children's Hospital. This doesn't mean your tiny explorer should be dumping his bath toys in the toilet or reconfiguring the VCR control panel. But it does mean you may need to step up your baby-proofing so your little one can pull up without hurting himself or the ceramic figurine collection.
Easy fix: Be generous with praise. A smile, a pat on the back, or a simple "good job" does wonders for a child's self-esteem. "If you can catch yourself praising him at least ten times a day, he'll be more likely to respond positively when you have to say no," says Dr. Muething.
Pitfall: not saying "no" enough If you recently stood by while your 9-month-old shredded family photos, you may have the opposite problem: trouble saying no. "Setting limits teaches babies one of the most important lessons in life: We don't always get everything we want," says Lerner. It also prepares them to do things later on like waiting their turn for a snack or sharing toys at preschool.
Easy fix: Offer options. "Find lots of situations during the day when your baby can make choices," says Lerner. "These are uninterrupted times when he's the leader, the director of the play." In other words, let him decide: blocks or ball, Goodnight Moon or Good Night, Baby. These opportunities to run the show will alleviate some of his frustration -- and yours -- when it's time for you to call the shots over more pressing issues, like whether he should pull a knife out of the dishwasher.
Your parents were...health nuts/junk-food junkiesWe're all a little obsessed with food. Whether your parents made mealtimes a nutrition boot camp or let you pig out to your heart's content, they were probably acting out of love. To give your baby a healthy rapport with food, try to be mindful of good eating habits without being manic.
Pitfall: not facing your own food issues From your baby's earliest meals, your choices for your baby can feel emotionally loaded. If you have trouble nursing, for example, it can feel like you've somehow failed your child, particularly for those of us who came from families where food was wrapped up in ideas about love.
Easy fix: If your baby spits out the pureed peas, don't take it as a rejection of your parenting skills -- or as a sign that she'll never eat her vegetables. "Avoid getting caught up in preconceived notions about what your infant isn't going to like," says Marilyn Tanner, a pediatric dietitian for St. Louis Children's Hospital. Instead, let your new eater try foods 12 to 15 times -- studies show it may take this many tries for a baby to grow accustomed to a certain flavor.
And watch out for mealtime power struggles, says Lovas. "Babies are finicky, and fighting with them will only make things worse." Not to mention set them up for food issues in the future. Offer healthy foods -- but don't force anything. Studies show that while infants may not get a balanced diet in one day, they're very good at self-regulating. Over the course of a week, they generally are able to meet their weekly dietary needs.
Pitfall: becoming the sweets police Of course, babies don't need sugar in their diet. But once your little one learns that desserts exist, your best bet is to teach her how to partake wisely.
Easy fix: "Eliminating sweets from your child's diet will backfire," warns Flynn. "You want to teach her that things like chocolate cake are special treats. She can't have them every day, but she can have them sometimes."
It's also important to set a good example, even for a young child. "Babies pick up on what you do and don't like," says Tanner. "If you're eating a lot of junk food, they'll catch on." Keep your diet as healthy as it can be.
Your parents were...overly cheap/overly indulgentIf your parents always missed the mark when it came to toys -- either because of money shortages or parental philosophies -- you may be tempted to make up for it by splurging on your own child. Or if you were showered with presents instead of love by a mom or dad who wanted to be there more often than they could, you may go to the other extreme. While your baby won't really get a handle on the meaning of material possessions until age 2 or 3, the sooner you learn how to strike a healthy balance between too much and not enough, the happier everyone will be.
Pitfall: thinking they value possessions If you're still not over the fact that Prom Queen Barbie never showed up under the Christmas tree, you might be tempted to overindulge your baby from day one. "Infants just don't have the same relationship to material goods as we do," says Dr. Muething. "The most important lessons they're taking in that first year are about relationships, love, and nonverbal communication." A new rattle may garner a few laughs, but a hug from Dad is an enduring investment, and the smile on your face will entertain them more than any toy you could possibly buy.
Easy fix: Spoil with time. Instead of heading for the toy aisle when you want to give your baby a treat, hit the zoo or the playground, or let her stay up late one night to snuggle with you on the couch.
Pitfall: being afraid of spoiling your baby If you watched in horror as your younger sister screamed bloody murder until your parents caved in and bought her that third Cabbage Patch Kid, you might have trouble indulging your little one once in a while. "Making the right choices as a parent is tough, especially when your parents weren't the role models you wanted them to be," says Dr. Muething.
Easy fix: Try to look at the situation objectively and ask yourself what your real concerns are, says Lerner. You don't want your child to feel deprived and, as a result, focus too much on material things. "Find a way to give your baby toys within boundaries that you're comfortable with -- maybe she gets birthday presents and then one or two gifts a month," she suggests. "It's important to make an informed, rather than an emotional, decision." Another way to look at it: Imagine how you want your baby to relate to possessions as a teenager. And work backward. "You probably want him to have a healthy appreciation for family, friends, and then finally things," says Dr. Muething. "So, raise him that way."