I have a good friend, Alycia, whom I've known since college. She's bright, has a great sense of humor, and is generally a lot of fun to be around. She is also, in my opinion, a crazy mom. Not wacko crazy, but her obsession with preventing germs from coming within miles of her 1-year-old puts her a little over the edge.
I have another friend who's fanatical about her daughter's diet. Her refrigerator contains items like tofu hot dogs and freshly squeezed organic carrot juice, and she never lets sugar pass her 3-year-old's lips.
Me, I pride myself on not being crazy. If one of my kids drops a grilled (on white bread) cheese (the processed kind) sandwich on my (reasonably) clean floor, I pick it up, dust it off, and hand it right back. Still, every so often, I can't help worrying that maybe I'm the one who's off base.
Face it: Objectivity isn't easy when it comes to our own child-rearing choices. So we asked the experts about various mothering styles. Here, their insights on what's silly -- and what's sensible.
A one-woman germ patrol, this mom is always on the lookout for telltale signs of germs that can cause colds. When you're around her, you're forever fearing that your child may -- horrors! -- sniffle or cough, resulting in one of Mrs. Germophobe's nervous "you're-putting-my-children-at-risk" looks.
Reality check: The fact is that kids get an average of six colds a year, says Eric Neibart, M.D., an instructor of infectious disease and internal medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, in New York City. Thus, at any given time, a good 10 to 15 percent of your child's peers are contagious. And the culprits are impossible to detect, since colds are contagious a few days before symptoms appear and from two to ten days after. "Even a doctor can't tell you exactly when a cold is no longer transmittable," Dr. Neibart says. So unless you care to raise your child in a bubble, he's going to catch colds -- lots of colds. And that's okay. For the most part, colds are more of a nuisance for kids than a serious health problem. As for proper cold etiquette? Keep your child home until any fever or lethargy has subsided. Then, once he's feeling better, let him go about life as usual.
She plays Mozart CDs for her infant, uses flash cards on her toddler, and spends her week chauffeuring her children to and from karate, art, soccer, piano, ballet, and more. After an hour with one of her French-speaking, tennis-acing prodigies, you ditch your secret hope of an Ivy League education for your preschooler (whose extracurricular activities include playing "Princess Barbie Gets Married" and painting her shoes with nail polish).
Reality check: "There's simply no evidence that overexposing young children to flash cards, Mozart, or early-reading programs leads to higher intelligence or even better SAT scores," says child and adolescent psychiatrist Alvin Rosenfeld, M.D., coauthor of The Over-Scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper- Parenting Trap. Yet our culture pressures concerned parents to begin early if they want their child to be academically competitive. "That attitude is doing much more harm than good," Dr. Rosenfeld says.
"Overemphasis on reading or memorization, without attention to a child's interest, can backfire," he says. "Kids can become frustrated if formal teaching begins too early. You may end up with a child who's less eager to read and write later on. Studies show that kids who are most likely to be successful in life are those with loving, caring, close relationships with their parents -- not those who've gone to countless enrichment programs. Relationships, not activities, are the foundation of a good life."
That's not to say early-childhood stimulation isn't important, says Marilou Hyson, Ph.D., an expert on child development at the National Association for the Education of Young Children. But you don't need flash cards (which teach specific skills and facts without context or a foundation of knowledge). Instead, read your child a story, check out the ladybug crawling on your fence, dance to your favorite music, or draw pictures.
You're talking to this mother, but she's not listening. Her 2-year-old daughter has interrupted -- again -- with another observation ("This carrot is orange!"). Instead of explaining that interrupting grown-ups when they're talking is rude, she's delighted by her preschooler';s insight and pursues the topic with vigor ("Yes, darling, it is orange! Can you tell me what else is orange?"). You, meanwhile, are left hanging.
Reality check: Interrupting is to be expected from preschoolers, says child psychiatrist Elizabeth Berger, M.D., author of Raising Children With Character. Manners are meaningless to young kids, who can't yet comprehend another person's point of view. But you're not doing a child any favors by encouraging rude behaviors. So introduce the concept of "excuse me" and praise your child's use of it.
Also, make sure you demonstrate good listening skills yourself (for example, when he's in the middle of a story about Power Rangers, don't jump up to start washing the dishes). "If a child is constantly interrupting, it may be that he's not getting enough of your undivided attention," Dr. Hyson says. "Make a point of indulging your child with relaxed, focused time."
When an uninterrupted adult conversation is crucial, explain that Mommy is sorry, but she needs to talk, and that your child needs to play by himself. Provide an activity -- give him some paper and crayons, blocks, or even a video -- to keep him occupied. And compliment his patience.
This mom enforces a strict no-sweets policy. No cookies, candy, or ice cream. Her idea of a "treat" is a granola-and-yogurt "sundae".
Reality check: Loading up on nutritionally void sugar calories isn't wise, but forbidding sugar entirely isn't the answer either, says Lynn Marotz, Ph.D., R.N., a professor of human development at the University of Kansas and coauthor of Health, Safety, and Nutrition for the Young Child. Completely restricting sugary foods can backfire big time: Instead of having a child who occasionally indulges his sweet tooth, you may create a kid obsessed with cookies, candy, and cake.
"I never have a second to myself," this mother tells you (and tells you and tells you). You agree, judging by her slightly frazzled demeanor, that she could use a break. Maybe a trip to the gym. A date with her husband. Time to herself. So you recommend the great babysitter you've found. She responds with one of those "but-I-love-my-children" looks. And says something like: "Nobody can care for a child as well as her own mother."
Reality check: "A lot of mothers suffer incredible guilt about needing help to care for their children," Dr. Berger says. "And if Mom works full-time, the guilt is compounded. Every spare second, she figures, needs to be lavished on her kids."
Trouble is, an overwhelmed mom isn't going to be on top of her game. Every parent (and every marriage) can benefit from the occasional kid-free outing. "It recharges your batteries and allows you to breathe in a different kind of atmosphere," Dr. Berger says. "When you take care of yourself, you take better care of your kids." And if you don't work outside the home, hiring the occasional sitter teaches your children that people other than you can provide them with care and safety.
Besides, there's another bonus to getting away every now and then: When you return home, not only will you appreciate your kids even more, they'll appreciate you more too.
Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission from the August 2003 issue of Parents magazine.