It’s impossible not to cringe as family therapist Michael Maniacci describes the typical parenting style:
The average parent starts out the morning with a democratic approach to parenting. We have energy and we’re willing to be the leader but still listen to opinions coming from our kids.
By lunchtime, we’re getting a little more frazzled, so now we’ve moved into the authoritative parenting style—"you eat those peas or else!"
And by bedtime, when we’re tired, we’ve moved into the permissive style. "Do whatever you want, just go to bed now."
And while most experts agree that the democratic style is best, parents need to chose one style and stick with it. "Any one done consistently is better than all three done randomly," says Maniacci, a clinical psychologist in Naperville and Chicago. "The number one parenting style is all three, and that’s a nightmare. Kids don’t know what parent to expect."
Most good parents make the same mistakes, Maniacci says. After years as a family therapist, he realized parents had a lot of mistakes in common, and most could be fixed with just a little education on parenting. Which is why Maniacci was speaking to a group of parents about common parenting mistakes as part of the Township of Downers Grove’s Parent University.
The number one mistake Maniacci sees in his practice? We want it all. And to make matters worse, we want it all right now.
Of course if we stop to think about it, we really can’t do everything. So to make things work out we begin to cut corners—sleep a little less, grab less-than-healthy food on the run, back burner our spouse. "In our attempt to have it all, the time frame and sticking to the schedule becomes most important," Maniacci says. And trying to do too much often means we’re missing the teachable moments in parenting. Instead of letting our 4-year-old tie his shoe, however long it may take, many of us are hurrying out the door and insist on doing it ourselves to keep on schedule, missing the opportunity to teach our child a life skill.
"This is rampant," Maniacci says. "I’ve met so many good parents who are so pressured and in the end it’s only us putting the pressure on ourselves."
Single parent Lisa Dressel of Roselle couldn’t agree more. "I don’t feel that there’s enough downtime to get everything done that I need to get done," says Dressel, mom to Sara Neuman, 9. "Basically I don’t have a life because my life revolves around Sara and her activities."
Maniacci’s recommendation? Learn to let go of some things. Maybe you can have it all, but not always now. Sometimes, he says, you have let go of something because the situation requires it.
"Even Sara knows this. Sometimes she’ll say ‘I need some downtime,’ " Dressel says. "But then I have to look at things and see where I can schedule this in."
Trying to control too much
But letting go is a huge problem for our generation of "helicopter parents." Which leads in to the next mistake Maniacci sees in his practice—overcontrol.
Control is based on the notion that if we protect our kids from life, they’ll be better off, Maniacci says. Nothing could be further from the truth. "We want to protect them from any hurt, but they need to experience life’s ups and downs," Maniacci says. "You have to be involved but also know when to let go, give them the leeway to make mistakes."
For Angie Brocato of Darien that meant encouraging her sixth-grade daughter, Lena, to go out for the school’s basketball team, even though she hadn’t made the cut when she tried out for the volleyball team. "Sometimes losing or failure can be a very potent life lesson and if I tried to shield her from all disappointment, I would inevitably hold her back from doing things she enjoys," Angie says. And ultimately Lena did make the basketball team and had a great season in the starting lineup.
"Your job is to protect them from harm, not reality," Maniacci says.
And not only are we overcontrolling, chances are we’re also overindulging. Remember when you were a kid and your whole, probably large, family shared one television or one car? You learned to negotiate, compromise and place the needs of the family before the needs of the individual. Things are different as families have become smaller and more affluent.
"As we have more disposable income, we have more stuff. Kids fight over a basketball, so we buy two basketballs. Kids think ‘If I don’t get my individual needs met, there must be something wrong,’ " Maniacci says.
And overindulging is more than just giving kids too much stuff, it also means we’re doing too much for them. "Let kids struggle. If you’re not sure if a child can do it or not, do a little less than you should. Encourage them to do more," Maniacci says.
Part of letting kids do more has to do with another common parenting mistake—providing too much structure for kids. "We structure play dates. We structure sports. We structure coloring by telling them to color in the lines," Maniacci says. "We need to let them go wild. We’re structuring too much for our children and they’re not getting the chance to be creative."
And when we structure every minute of a child’s day, they never get the chance to figure out on their own what to do if they’re bored. "This is leading them to lean on us for, ‘What do I do next?’ " Maniacci says.
Letting go of our childhood
And while we’re letting go a little bit, remember one more bit of advice from Maniacci—don’t repair your childhood through theirs.
"We’re old. It’s over. We’ve had our childhood. Now give them theirs," Maniacci says. "Because you didn’t learn piano, why does your child have to pay the price for that?"
Above all, parents need to learn to lighten up and let some things go, Maniacci says. Maybe we can have it all. But the first thing you have to do is acknowledge that some things you won’t do now. So prioritize, get some sleep, eat healthy and take care of yourself first.
It’s like the airplane speech where they tell parents to put on their own oxygen mask before they put on their child’s in case of a crash. "If you don’t take care of yourself first you both die," Maniacci says. "And if you’re not recharging your battery, how are you going to take care of your child?"
Liz DeCarlo is senior editor at Chicago Parent and mom to Grace, Emma and Anthony.