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The 6 Biggest Parenting Myths

We've all been there. You're in the grocery store with a long list and a squirming toddler strapped into the cart. She becomes agitated and starts shrieking, "Out! Out!" at the top of her lungs. You are a) mortified and b) determined to bring home every item on the list. So you tell her that if she'll just be quiet, she can have a bag of M&M's. It works.

Or: You and your husband are having a disagreement that quickly escalates into a loud argument. Your kids—who normally require something akin to an earthquake to tear them away from their engrossing video—stop watching and stare at you, mouths agape. You envision them flying into the arms of a therapist by age 10.

In both of these situations, the Bad Parent Fairy hovers over our shoulders, fluttering annoyingly and whispering in our ears: "Bribery is bad" and "Don't argue in front of the children." We end up feeling guilty for not living up to the expectations we have for ourselves as parents.

In reality, the Bad Parent Fairy is just propagating old myths. But many of these have become such a part of the fabric of modern parenting, it can be difficult to sift out the grains of truth from the guilt-inducing fallacies.

To free yourself from such traps: Examine and defuse these myths, one by one—and then tell that Bad Parent Fairy to take a hike.

1. Bribery Is Bad

Bribery has gotten a bad rap. And yet almost every parent has used it from time to time—guiltily, covertly, fearing that we are somehow setting an irreversible precedent. "Stop me before I bribe again!" we want to shout.

Margaret Briggs, a mother of two in Roxbury, CT, was exasperated by the daily struggle she faced getting her sons, ages 6 and 9, ready for school. "I had to drag them out of bed, then we'd fight about what they'd wear. And it was like pulling teeth to get them to brush theirs. By the time we got to breakfast, they were grumpy and I felt like I'd been up half a day."

Then Briggs had the idea for a "bribe chart," a poster-board graph on which she wrote such activities as "Get Dressed," "Brush Teeth," and "Make Bed" and placed a bunch of stickers. After a week of meeting their responsibilities on their own, the boys each got a candy bar; after a month, a small Lego set. "At first I felt guilty—why should I have to bribe them?" says Briggs. "But now they get themselves up and ready every day, and mornings have become a pleasure instead of a mutual torture chamber."

Giving kids privileges or rewards as a positive consequence for behavior isn't necessarily a bad thing. The word "bribery" makes such an incentive sound worse than it actually is, says Ellen Sachs Alter, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at the Family Institute at Northwestern University, in Evanston, IL. "Used selectively, for a specific behavioral goal like toilet training or teaching kids to make their bed, such bribery can be positive."

Of course, if every situation holds the promise of a reward for good behavior, your children will turn into monsters. "If you start bribing in order to get cooperation for simple things—being polite to a grown-up, putting shoes on—you'll get to the point where they won't make a move without the promise of a candy bar or a dollar," she says.

So first, try employing positive yet reward-free logic to achieve results: "When you use the potty, you can wear big-boy underwear" or "If you get yourself dressed every day, you can pick your own clothes."

Turn to bribery as a last resort. Keep in mind that the reward can be nonmaterial and include special privileges, such as having lunch at Daddy's office or taking a trip to the zoo.

Abby Margolis Newman has written for PARENTING and

Children Should Never See Their Parents Argue

I must have been 6 or 7 when I was lying awake in bed one night and heard, filtering up from downstairs, my parents having an argument. This was the first time I'd ever heard them yell at each other, and I cried myself to sleep, certain they were headed for divorce. (More than 30 years later, my parents are still happily married.)

Even while successfully raising five children, my parents—like all parents—made a few mistakes. By keeping their inevitable arguments behind closed doors in order to shield us from marital conflict, they unwittingly conveyed the message that fighting was somehow abnormal or frightening.

Many of us mistakenly assume that children are irreparably harmed by witnessing their parents' disagreements. "We have a fantasy that denial is beneficial, that if kids aren't exposed to anger or bitterness, they won't have these qualities themselves," says Steve Tuber, Ph.D., professor of clinical psychology at the Graduate Center/City College, in New York City.

Constant bickering, of course, benefits no one. But children need good models for how to deal with angry feelings. "Arguing is a healthy part of any relationship," says Tuber. "By being able to disagree in a loving way and not hiding it from your children, you're teaching them how to resolve conflicts in a healthy way."

There are certain caveats: Never allow fights to become emotionally or physically abusive, and never fight about the children in front of them. "It's important to present a united front when it comes to raising your child," explains Heidi Murkoff, a PARENTING contributing editor and coauthor of the best-selling What to Expect books. "If you openly disagree about discipline techniques, your child is going to be confused and won't know what's expected of her."

When the argument blows over, it's critical that kids see you kiss and make up. This helps them understand that their parents go on loving each other even though they've had a fight.

Always Put Your Kids' Needs Ahead of Your Own

What expectant first-time parent hasn't heard some variation on this from a veteran parent friend: "Enjoy your life now—once you have kids, it's all over, ha ha." We readily swallow the concept that once our baby's head pops out into the world, the next 18 years will be spent putting our own needs behind his.

Wrong. Murkoff puts it bluntly: "If you want to raise a child who puts his needs before others, then put his needs before yours." When a new baby cries, of course, a parent should always respond right away. But when he's a bit older—starting between 9 and 12 months—"you can begin to show him that other people have rights too by planting the seeds of patience, keeping in mind that it will take plenty of time for those seeds to sprout," says Murkoff. When your 9-month-old cries to be picked up, tell him, "Mommy's just finishing the dishes, then I'll be right over."

Being devoted to your child and being devoted to yourself shouldn't be mutually exclusive. Just as it's your job to make sure that your child gets proper nutrition, enough sleep, social interaction, and mental stimulation, remember that you need all those things as well. Sarah Moore, the mother of two boys, ages 4 and 7, and a management director at a San Francisco advertising agency, puts it this way: "I am a happier and more patient parent when I have interests beyond my kids, like my weekly yoga class. And when my husband and I get away by ourselves, this shows the boys that Mommy and Daddy love each other enough to spend time alone together."

You Should Treat All Your Children the Same

If I had a dollar for every time I've heard my two older boys, ages 7 and 8, whine, "It's not fair!" I'd be a millionaire by now. The sheer variety of daily decisions about which children can howl indignantly, complaining of inequity, is astonishing. Siblings will attach life-or-death importance to the distribution of red versus green Popsicles, who gets to go to the PG-rated movie, and who sits next to the window in an airplane.

"Being evenhanded with your kids and not favoring one over the other is a good thing," says Harriet Lerner, Ph.D, author of The Mother Dance: How Children Change Your Life. When accusations of inequity arise over such trivial matters as Popsicle color or window seats, you can treat all your children the same. By directing them to take turns ("You can sit by the window on the flight to Grandma's. On the way back, your brother can sit there.") or split the difference (dividing the flying time in half and switching seats), you give them the feeling of equitable treatment.

But fairness doesn't always mean sameness. Giving an older child more privileges or responsibilities than a younger one is unequal treatment that's still fair. As is giving more time to a child who has special difficulty paying attention, learning, or calming down.

However, kids under 6 aren't able to see things in context and have difficulty understanding that their needs may be different from their sibling's. "To a four-year-old, the idea that a two-year-old brother needs to be picked up first if both are crying is incomprehensible," says Tuber. "The parent looks really unreasonable to that child."

When an older kid resents the "special treatment" accorded to a younger sibling, point out the benefits that come with age: "You get to ride a bicycle. You can tie your own shoes." When your 5-year-old doesn't understand why she can't go to camp with her 7-year-old sister, concoct your own "Camp Day" at home, complete with sleeping bags, matching-color T-shirts, and a "camp lunch" in your backyard.

It's essential to remember that children—even identical twins—come into a family with different needs and temperaments, and what may work for one may not for another. Getting kids to recognize and revel in their individuality may cut down on sibling rivalry too—though the Popsicle Wars may continue for many years to come.

Children Need "Quality Time"

The phrase "quality time" was originally meant to reassure working parents—who had fewer hours with their kids in any given week than their stay-at-home counterparts—that what matters is not the amount of time you spend but the quality of that time.

Flash bulletin: Any time you spend with your kids is quality time. When Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute, in New York City, conducted a study of more than a thousand children about various family issues, she found that both quality and quantity matter. Kids need downtime or unscheduled hanging-out time with their parents, as well as "focused time" when parents are really paying attention. "It's not an either/or issue," says Galinsky. Watching TV and reading individually in different corners of the family room both qualify as valuable downtime.

"When people hear 'quality time,' they envision a family meeting in which everyone talks about their day and their feelings," says Lerner. "This just doesn't work." Many kids simply don't feel like pouring forth a font of information about their day to detail-thirsty parents. As my first-grader, Jonah, said to me recently, "Mom, I just lived it. Do I have to talk about it too?"

Experts agree that having unprogrammed, unscheduled time with your children can often comprise quality—regardless of quantity. And sometimes when you least expect it—while lounging in your pajamas on a Sunday morning or cuddling together on the kids' beds before sleep—downtime can beget moments of connection, joy, and even intimacy.

"Losing It" With Your Kids Makes You a Bad Parent

Children are born with an uncanny ability to periodically transform even the most placid parents into screaming maniacs. Those of us who pride ourselves on being able to calmly and rationally resolve problems at work and with our spouse are horrified to discover that we are often powerless over our emotions when it comes to our progeny.

Worst of all, these moments of explosive anger rarely happen in the presence of others, which can create feelings of isolation and perpetuate a two-pronged myth: "Good parents" should be able to control their anger, and this never happens to anyone else.

On the contrary. "It's a universal experience for parents to 'lose it' from time to time," says Tuber. "All of their coping mechanisms evaporate, and they're left with tremendous frustration and anger."

So we scream. But does this damage the kids? "Not as long as a parent can later say, 'I'm sorry I lost it,'" says Galinsky. "Then kids can shrug it off." For a younger child who may be taken aback by your outburst, give her a hug, then say, "I know that was scary when I screamed so loud. I will try really hard not to lose my temper, but I'm not perfect." It's important for your child to learn that everyone makes mistakes—even her mommy and daddy.

Parenting is hard enough without buying into the unrealistic and even harmful expectations that often plague us. So go ahead. Bribe. Argue. Be selfish. Lose it once in a while. And know that your child will turn out okay. The only one who may be permanently damaged is the Bad Parent Fairy—and maybe that's just fine.