Unicorns. Dragons. Bigfoot. A husband who, on any given Monday, cooks dinner and does the dishes, then puts the kids to bed while you read a magazine and relax.
If your first thought was "No such husband exists," you're correct. Neither do unicorns, dragons, or Bigfoot. They're myths, and obvious ones at that. The realm of parenting has its own myths as well, which have taken hold and become gospel. They often have a grain of truth in them, though, and fit in with modern notions about child development, which is why they're so hard to dispel. But because it's our kids we're talking about, they're not harmless fictions like unicorns and dragons. Some big myths about raising children, and how to move beyond them:
Myth #1: You know your child better than anyone
The partial truth: Who knows better than you that your son loves bananas but hates peaches? "Naturally, a parent knows her child's temperament and if he's hungry or tired or irritated," says Dan Kindlon, Ph.D., a clinical and research psychologist at Harvard who specializes in children and adolescents. But you don't need a shrink to tell you that.
The bigger picture: As well as you know your child, you have a limited, biased opinion. You're blinded by love. "Parents tend not to be objective," says Kindlon. "Teachers and daycare workers, on the other hand, see a range of kids and may have a better sense of how a child fits into a spectrum. They can offer a parent a new, different perspective."
Ignore others' observations at your child's peril. "Jordy was a typical three-year-old, sometimes listening to me, sometimes ignoring me if something else was going on," says Trudi Roth, a mom of two in Los Angeles. "When he entered preschool, the teacher called me in and said she thought Jordy might have a hearing problem. I blew it off at first, but then I started to notice things. He always wanted to blast the TV. I asked him questions at louder and louder volumes before he'd acknowledge me. We had tests done, and our pediatrician agreed that Jordy does have diminished hearing."
This myth is further undermined by the fact that your child's personality shifts as he interacts with people other than you and segues from home settings to public ones. Whether at preschool or at a friend's house, your child is likely to present whatever version of himself will help him fit in. He may discover some fears when you're not by his side, or maybe new strengths. He won't be a totally different person, but he's likely to be unlike the kid you experience every day.
The upshot: Be open to who your child really is. As he grows, he may surprise you—with his bravery, his sensitivity, his abilities and his dreams.
Valerie Frankel's new novel, Hex and the Single Girl, will be published in March 2006.
Myth #2: You can shape your child's personality
The partial truth: There's no question that every child's environment (conditions in the womb, home atmosphere, birth order, and more) plays a role in the person he ends up being. The classic, frequently cited example of this is orphans who, due to severe deprivation, seemed developmentally and emotionally stunted at age 3. But after adoption into loving, nurturing homes, the majority of them mellowed and were able to form loving bonds.
The bigger picture: Nurturing is critical for a child's security and development, but parents are only one component of that. And nature—genes—are significant players, thought to account for anywhere from 30 to 70 percent of the variation in people's temperaments. "I've got two-year-old twin boys. I've treated them the same way, they live in the same place, with the same parents and dog, but they have completely different outlooks, personalities, and preferences," says Judith Newman of New York City, mom of Henry and Gus. "If big chunks of personality weren't set at birth, why is one of my kids terrified of being sucked down the bathtub drain, and the other isn't? Neither has had a bad experience with a drain. And that's just one difference among hundreds."
"Babies aren't a blank slate," says Sam Gosling, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. "We're all born with a baseline of anxiety or outgoingness, for example, and a parent can influence her child only within a biologically determined range."
The upshot: You can't mold a kid's personality from a mound of clay into a gleaming statue of David. But you can help shape her behavior and show her ways to make the most of what she's got. A girl who doesn't care about mess can be taught to keep her room neat. A musically gifted boy still needs a piano to play on.
Myth #3: The more time you spend with your child, the better adjusted he'll be
The partial truth: "For a child to develop secure attachment, he needs to know his parents are available, that there's someone he can rely on to take care of him," says Kindlon.
The bigger picture: Kids aren't fragile flowers. They can thrive in any number of environments and don't need unceasing parental oversight to reach their full potential. And this "secure attachment" that experts like to refer to can develop with any nurturing adult, such as a grandparent or caring babysitter, and without your 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week attention.
Besides which, your constant presence doesn't guarantee secure attachment anyway—just because loving parents are good for kids doesn't mean all parents, all the time, is necessarily better. Consider this bit of research conducted by Peter Gorski, M.D., director of the Lawton and Rhea Chiles Center for Healthy Mothers and Babies in Tampa.
He studied new mothers who fell into three subgroups: (1) moms who went back to work after a six-week maternity leave, (2) moms who work at home, and (3) moms who gave up employment in or outside the home. After a year, their kids were tested on their security of attachment in a standardized laboratory procedure. The group with lower than expected attachment? The work-at-home moms. "The quality and consistency of attention you give your child matters more than just being visible," says Gorski. "In the first year of life, a child can be deeply confused to see his mother there, but not there. She's on the phone, the computer, waving a bottle in his face, not engaged."
Of course, each child is different. "I stayed home with my kids," says Roth. "But I found that my daughter Sophie absolutely blossomed in preschool. Her language skills, social skills, took off—as soon as she got away from me." And some moms may find that being around their children all the time makes them worse mothers. Says Newman, a work-at-homer: "Personally, I can't spend more than twenty-four hours alone with my twins without feeling homicidal. It's not good for a child to witness his mother's descent into insanity."
The upshot: It's not a simple black-and-white matter, and every parent has to decide individually what works best for her and her child.
Myth #4: You are your child's best role model
The partial truth: The ideal parent is a loving, supportive fan; secure attachment figure; empathic social reference point. Hence, your child will always look to you for guidance on how to be and behave.
The bigger picture: It all depends on how you define role model. As almost any parent can attest, it doesn't really matter how many dark-green leaves you cram into your mouth: Your child will eat spinach when she's good and ready. Keep your room neat as a pin, your child's room may still remain a pigsty. So clearly, that kind of if-I-do-it-they-will-too role modeling is a myth.
But what of the bigger issues? Roth is planning to return to work to be an example to her daughter, now 4½. But it may not make much of an impact. "The place you work, your title or position, how much money you earn don't mean anything to small children," says Gorski. "Kids aren't thinking about being adults, or the adult measures of success."
A parent is, however, likely to be a long-term role model to her kids in a more subtle way. Put it to yourself this way: "Am I creating memories that'll be helpful to my child later in life?" Consider the influence of your own parents. You might choose to do the opposite of what they did (unlike my mother, for instance, I will never bug my daughters about their weight), or you might imitate them. Either way, you're using your parents as role models. "Every night before bed, my father would ask me, 'What did you do nice for someone today?'" says Eric Lebersfeld, a dad of two in Morristown, New Jersey. "I'm starting to ask this of my oldest, Jack. My dad wanted us to always think of other people. And now, as a parent, I want to pass it along."
The upshot: What you eat and how much you exercise are not "values" you can transmit across the generations. My mother didn't serve salad for lunch, but that's what I eat now (and I should probably ease up on pointing that out to my girls). Also, doing your best is better than trying to be the best. And it's a lot more realistic.
Myth #5: You owe your child the best things
The partial truth: We want to, and should, keep our children as safe, as healthy, and as comfortable as possible. And there are many products—from electrical-outlet covers and baby monitors to the softest pj's—that we gladly buy to help us do just that. What proud momma would say "I'll have the third-best crib, please, and while you're at it I'll take a set of your worst sheets?"
The bigger picture: We flood our broods with possessions. In the U.S., $300 billion (billion, with a "b") worth of family purchases are made for children each year. Not surprisingly, 66 percent of American parents believe their kids equate self-worth with what they own. So put down the credit card. Step away from the toy store. Take a deep breath, and consider what your child really needs, now and later on.
And then think about how our culture of material satiation can trickle into our children's behavior. The ads and marketing messages that provide a constant backdrop to our kids' lives say "want, want, want," at a point in their lives when they're only just learning to delay gratification. "If a child says he wants something, and the parents run out and buy it immediately, he won't develop delay-of-gratification skills," says Kindlon, whose latest book is Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age.
Overindulgent parenting is linked to a host of problems. "The issue becomes one of leniency," says Kindlon. "Children of lenient parents, and kids who rate themselves as spoiled, are at higher risk for a host of problems including eating disorders, underachieving, permissiveness toward sex, body-image problems, and drug use."
The upshot: The most important thing you can give your children doesn't come from a mall. It's as simple as love, rules, and consistency.
And if you don't believe that, I've got a unicorn to sell you, cheap.