Myth: You'll spoil your baby if you pick him up whenever he cries.
Kids are undersize adults who are perfectly capable of holding down a job. Children should be seen and not heard. That's probably what you would have believed if you'd raised a family 100 years ago. Today, of course, you know such ideas are utter nonsense. So why are you still convinced that sugar makes your preschooler bounce off the walls? Or that bribing your child makes you a bad parent? Because you're no more immune than your Victorian ancestors were to conventional wisdom that's tossed at you by friends, family, and the media. To help you sort facts from fiction, we've taken a look at some myths that circulate widely among today's parents. Here, an update.
Myth: You'll spoil your baby if you pick him up whenever he cries.
Truth: You can't spoil a newborn. Period. If your baby calms down when you pick him up, he needed to be picked up. But more important, he has to gain confidence that you will respond to his needs, says Maurice J. Elias, Ph.D., author of Emotionally Intelligent Parenting (Three Rivers Press). In fact, during the first six months of life, that's a baby's primary job. "The critical task at this stage is developing a sense of trust that the world will take care of him," Dr. Elias says. "If you're crying or screaming and no one comes to pick you up, you don't develop that trust." After the baby is about 6 months old, Dr. Elias adds, your job is to pull back a bit and let him figure out that he can survive -- for a few minutes, at least -- without someone rushing to his side. Don't worry; he may holler, but by then, deep down, he knows you'll be back.
Myth: Sugar makes kids hyper.
Truth: Sorry. No matter what you've observed in your own or other children, there is no scientific evidence to support this belief.
So why the dichotomy between what research shows and what parents observe? That's because sugar itself isn't the culprit, says Alan Greene, M.D., a pediatrician in Palo Alto, California. Any food that affects blood-sugar levels (a tomato as well as a candy bar) can create an adrenaline surge, which may lead to a burst of energy. That effect is usually mitigated by fiber, which helps pipe everything into the bloodstream at a steady pace. However, many sugary treats are low in fiber, and it's that fact that explains the energy burst -- not the sugar itself.
So if adrenaline rushes are a constant in your home, push the apple over the apple juice, and know that it's okay for your child to add sugar to his breakfast cereal -- as long as it's a high-fiber variety.
Myth: Your feet grow a full size when you're pregnant.
Truth: Don't be ridiculous. They normally expand only half a size, says Michele Isaacs Gliksman, M.D., coauthor of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Pregnancy and Childbirth (Alpha Books) and an obstetrician in Fairlawn, New Jersey. With all the additional weight and swelling your tootsies tolerate when you're expecting a baby, it probably shouldn't surprise you that permanent changes are afoot. "Does your stomach look the same as it did before you were pregnant?" Dr. Gliksman asks rhetorically. "Something similar is happening to your feet. Bones, soft tissue, muscles, and blood vessels get so stretched out -- especially if you're having twins -- that they really can't return to their original size." Look on the bright side: major shoe shopping ahead.
Myth: The "twos" are terrible.
Truth: The "twos" -- or more accurately, a period that falls somewhere between 18 and 30 months of age -- are terrible only if you're unprepared. Sometime during that stretch, it's almost certain that your sweet baby will be displaced by the Toddler From Hell: stubborn, argumentative, tantrum-prone, possessed by an almost supernatural will. Needless to say, dealing with this can be, well, terrible. However, if you keep your eye on the positive side of this stage and have some knowledge about how to handle it, you and your child will both benefit.
A child this age reaches the critical and exciting point in his development at which he begins to lunge toward independence and individuality. "You want your child to establish his own identity," says Susan Anderson Swedo, M.D., a behavioral pediatrician and coauthor of Is It "Just a Phase"? (Broadway Books). "So whenever possible, you need to encourage his desire to separate from you." To make the twos more manageable, be sure to set clear limits, offer choices ("What'll it be -- the red pajamas or the blue ones?"), and try to reduce the number of situations in which rebellion must be squashed -- in other words, this might be the time to switch your grocery shopping to a day when your spouse is home to watch your child.
Don't say, "Because I'm your mother and I said so."
Truth: Actually, that phrase is a good way to end an inappropriate negotiation. You know the script: You have reasonably explained to your daughter that she must honor her bedtime because children need rest to grow, and she has unreasonably responded, more than once or twice, "But why?" At this point, she is trying to pick or prolong a skirmish, and you are no longer obliged to provide a rational response to her questions, says Anthony E. Wolf, Ph.D., author of The Secret of Parenting: How to Be in Charge of Today's Kids (Farrar Straus & Giroux). Your mission now is to end the discussion -- and "Because I'm your mother and I said so" is a perfectly acceptable way to do that. But if saying it makes you feel too much like your own mom, try substituting this slightly updated version: "Because I'm the mother and you're the child, and there really isn't anything else to discuss."
Myth: Bribing your child is always a bad idea.
Truth: Bribing a child is almost always a bad idea. But if you avoid it 98 percent of the time, it can serve you well for those 2 percent of situations in which decent behavior is nonnegotiable. If, for instance, you really, really need your 5-year-old to sit still during your sister's wedding, there's no harm in promising that you'll buy him a Dragon Ball Z doll at the end of the day, Dr. Wolf says.
So why not use this more often? Practically speaking, bribery costs money, and it also loses its effectiveness pretty rapidly, Dr. Wolf says. Moreover, you'll no doubt want to avoid the message it sends: that you don't have to behave like a civilized human being unless there's something in it for you.
Myth: Parents shouldn't fight in front of their children.
Truth: This is one myth that's conditionally true: If you can fight in front of your child maturely, hashing out differences through calm, low-volume, blame-free discussion, then go for it. Your child will learn valuable lessons about conflict resolution within a healthy adult relationship. But if you have a feeling this one's going to be a little more heated -- and let's face it, it's hard to keep your voice down when you've spent the past hour tangling with rush-hour traffic -- be aware that grown-up fights can be frightening to children, Dr. Elias says. Young ones in particular tend to blame themselves for their parents' tiffs, he says: Because they so desperately need to believe in your perfection, they think any chinks in the armor must be their fault. So -- Mom, Dad -- know when to take it outside.
Myth: Babies who walk early and talk early are the brightest of their peer group.
Truth: Earlier-than-average talking and walking skills are meaningless in the big race of life, says Susan Anderson Swedo, M.D. "The bottom line is that children who are significantly delayed in these areas may have lingering problems, but the opposite is not true," she says.
In fact, she notes, those highly noticeable developmental milestones are merely a function of motor development: Just as you can't walk until you learn to crawl (usually), you can't talk until you learn to manipulate your mouth. Both require the miracle of normal nerve growth, which will occur in each child at its own pace, soaring IQ or no soaring IQ.
Myth: You can rely on maternal instinct.
Truth: Not always. What many of us call maternal instinct often turns out to be maternal anxiety. How many afternoons have you rushed home, certain that the ambulance you heard was heading to your house, where the sitter surely had let the baby wander out alone to the wading pool? Or checked the messages on your cell phone, convinced that the school nurse had called? Apparently, worry is as essential to motherhood as the ability to make a peanut-butter sandwich.
This isn't to say you should dismiss those gut feelings; intuition is a real thing that all of us have to a varying degree, says Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., author of The Mother Dance: How Children Change Your Life (Harper Perennial). But before you panic, have a good talk with a clear-thinking friend who can help you sort stuff out, Dr. Lerner suggests. "The challenge is to calm down -- we cannot be in touch with our inner wisdom and intuition when we're anxious or intense." And by all means, pay attention to any strong or persistent gut feelings you have about something truly important, such as your child's health. Says Dr. Lerner, "I've seen many cases in which a doctor disqualified or even shamed a mother who had a concern about her child's health or development. The mother turned out to be right."
Myth: If you don't respond to every misbehavior with a firm hand, you'll lose control of your kids.
Truth: It is simply not possible to respond to every misbehavior with a firm hand, given the variables of situation, mood (yours and theirs), and the ever-changing roster of annoying behaviors children acquire as they grow. So it's reassuring to hear that at least one discipline expert doesn't think you have to. What matters more than the much vaunted consistency rule, asserts Anthony Wolf, Ph.D., is that your children know when you mean business -- and act accordingly. "Kids know that at any particular time in any situation, they may or may not be allowed to get away with something. What they'll respond to is, does my parent at this moment mean it?" says Wolf, author of The Secret of Parenting: How to Be in Charge of Today's Kids -- From Toddlers to Preteens -- without Threats or Punishment.
The beauty of Wolf's prescription is that it allows for flexibility on behaviors that really aren't major or even predictable enough to put into your family rule book. "Take noise in the house. Yesterday, it didn't bother you so much; today it does. Even if you let him bang the drum in the house yesterday, if you say no today in that particular tone of voice that says, 'I mean it,' he'll pay attention," Wolf explains. The trick here is to stand firm when you decide to crack down: "You have to pick and choose your battles. If you're not in the mood, it's worse to waver because you're not up for a big battle than it is to say from the start, 'Guess what? It's your lucky day.'"
Myth: Having a baby wrecks your sex life.
Truth: Having a baby changes your sex life -- and probably for many, many years -- but only wrecks it completely for those first few months, when you're both bone-tired and in a state of complete shock. So don't give up on each other. Sex can return to its pre-baby norm, reassures Dr. Jennifer Knopf, a Chicago sex and marital therapist. "The trick is for couples not to put too much pressure on themselves and let the physical intimacy return slowly," she prescribes. It can help to know that your sexual triggers -- the sights and sounds and situations that get you humming -- have likely changed significantly as well. Now, such prosaic prerequisites such as plenty of sleep and a trusted babysitter can do more towards getting you turned on than your red satin thong or his fireman hat.
Myth: After the first three years, your baby's brain is "set" for life.
Truth: Some basic survival skills such as seeing and speaking -- skills that any child who isn't actively deprived of normal stimuli will readily master -- need to be acquired within the first three years of life. But more refined activities like playing piano or learning a foreign language can wait. "There will be new brain areas developing and becoming active and functional throughout childhood and even young adulthood," says Dr. Elizabeth Swedo. "That's one reason young adults can think abstractly and two year olds can't." Why were parents led to believe, then, that after the first three years of life, critical learning windows slammed shut? In his book The Myth of the First Three Years, John T. Bruer, Ph.D., asserts that science and scientific studies have been misinterpreted or misrepresented, fomenting cram-course thinking among parents of the under-3 crowd. If you want to enhance your baby's brain, says Dr. Swedo, put away black-and-white mobile and the Baby Mozart tapes, and instead follow your child's lead. "Two year olds are very curious about their environment, for example," she says, "On a walk, you really can get in some biology and geology if you've done your homework. When your child seems interested in mastering numbers, play games in the supermarket. Have her look for all the nines. Meet the child where she is. You provide extra stimulation just by paying attention."
Myth: The world is a dangerous and scary place in which children need protection 24/7.
Truth: Overprotectiveness may do more harm than good. The fact is, many of those tragedies we worry about are either exceedingly rare or eminently preventable. No one knows for certain how many children are abducted each year, but even the leading advocacy group for missing children, the National Center for Missing and Abducted Children, estimates it's no higher than one per day -- hardly a reason to keep an 8 year old from playing in the front yard in a safe neighborhood. Lyme disease, researchers reported just this past spring, is difficult to catch and easy to treat -- hardly cause to dress a child in long pants on a sweltering summer day. But what's the harm, you may ask, in the face of such a horrifying alternative? "We are living in a society where understanding diversity and having broad experiences is becoming more and more important," says Maurice Elias. "If our kids are going to be fearful and home-centered, it limits their potential." Of course, it pays to be cautious -- bike helmets really do reduce the threat of head injury by 80 percent, and checking for tics after a hike in the woods just makes sense. But rather than going overboard, divert your energies towards teaching your children to take care of themselves, and to make their own evaluations of what's safe and what's not, says Dr. Elias.
Myth: Women look beautiful when they're pregnant.
Truth: Supermodels look beautiful when they're pregnant, and that's if they're lucky. Take this from a mother who's seen a lot of pregnant women, obstetrician Michele Gliksman: "Some women get a pinkish glow that looks healthy, plus they're happy, so they have an aura that comes through in their face. But a lot of women find their lips swell, their gums bleed, they get acne, spider veins, they waddle -- what's beautiful about that?" Okay, so to the objective eye, you don't look gorgeous. But who cares? Your husband, awestruck by the idea that you're helping him perpetuate the family line, truly believes you outshine Cameron Diaz. And when it's all over, you'll have a squirmy little thing who in just a few years will tell you that you're the most beautiful lady in the world, and mean it.
Originally published in the March 2002 issue of Parents magazine.