I was jazzing up my kids’ organic milk with fluorescent pink strawberry syrup when I had an epiphany: I am willingly dosing my kids with sugary goo just to get them to drink their milk. And I think this is better for them than no milk at all? Apparently so — and I’m far from alone. There isn’t a parent out there who hasn’t made some version of this call. That’s because it’s impossible to raise your kids without having to constantly choose between the lesser of many evils. (Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying.)
The goal, then, is simply to try to avoid trading one bad thing for something worse as often as possible. That’s why we asked top experts to weigh in on five universal parenting dilemmas. With their advice, you’ll be making smarter decisions with a lot less stress. Phew!
Playground hovering vs. possible injury
I want my kids to be safe, so I insist on helmets when they ride their scooters and bikes, and I trail them on playground equipment. But is all my caution actually helping?
Maybe not. As Wendy Pomerantz, M.D., attending physician at the Cincinnati Children’s Medical Center, and a mother herself, tells me, “There are a lot of things that we think make kids safer that don’t.” For example, studies show that when an adult goes down a slide with a child, that child is more likely to be injured than if he’d gone by himself.
Moreover, as kids get older, you want them to take chances and build confidence, while making sure they get to experience the feeling of risk in a non-life- or limb-threatening way. It’s actually good for kids to test the speed limit on their bikes, to ride out the wobbles — if they’re wearing helmets. They need to learn how to fall and get back up.
After all, what’s worse than scrapes is overprotecting a child so much that you make him believe he’s incapable of taking risks. Tim Gill, author of the book No Fear: Growing Up in a Risk-Averse Society, notes, “There’s mounting evidence that children learn valuable life lessons from facing challenges and building confidence in their ability to cope. They need to learn to deal with the everyday risks that they’ll begin to face as they grow up.”
In the long run, hovering is worse. Give your kids the tools — safety equipment, places to play, and confidence — they need to develop independence.
Bribing with treats vs. a limited diet
My children are comically bad about trying new foods; they’ve been known to burst into tears at the sight of an unfamiliar veggie on their plates. I can convince them to take the plunge if I promise dessert, but I worry that this neutralizes potential health benefits — and sets them up with a weird relationship to food.
Ferrell Motlow, M.D., a doctor at New York City’s Pediatric Associates, tells me that she doesn’t believe in bribing with dessert, because “it should be a sometimes-treat, not something they get used to having after every meal.”
She stresses that the adverse effects of eating too much sugar generally outweigh the benefits of an extra carrot — and that this pattern primes kids’ palates for sweets with every meal. What’s important is getting kids into the habit of trying new foods (which means sneaking veggies into their food via cauliflower purees isn’t a great idea, either).
The best option: being a role model for your child by eating a diverse diet. “Enjoy a variety of foods, and your kid may want to copy your behavior,” says Vandana Sheth, R.D., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
It can also help to try getting creative, like a friend of mine who prepared alphabetical dinners to go with the letter-ofthe-week themes in her daughter’s kindergarten class; she swears her little one happily feasted on asparagus and arugula, allthe way to ziti and zucchini.
Bribery is worse. Keep introducing new foods in a low-stress way, and don’t let it devolve into a power struggle. Any time your kids refuse to sample something, avoid engaging. (Once dinner turns into a battle, kids only care about winning; it’s not even about the icky peas.) Don’t sweat it if they mostly subsist on mac ‘n’ cheese. They’ll grow out of it.
Activity overload vs. focused training
Nowadays there are so many options for extracurriculars, it can make your head spin. Should you sign your kid up for 9,000 activities or just have her play chess?
The answer varies depending on the age of your child, says Jennifer Fredericks, Ph.D., author of Eight Myths of Student Disengagement. “For kids under 5, most research suggests breadth is beneficial. By engaging in a variety of activities, they’re meeting other kids and trying out different skill sets.” The point shouldn’t be to prep your 4-year-old to be a prima ballerina.
In fact, at that young age, kids don’t even need structured classes, says early childhood development psychologist Angela R. Fisher, Ph.D. Getting a group of kids together in a field with a ball probably provides them with the same benefits as a pricey little kickers program would.
When it comes to older children, however, zeroing in on one or two extracurricular activities makes sense. “In terms of skill development, if you want a kid to be really good at something when she gets older, she needs to be focused, and that kind of activity requires a greater time investment,” explains Dr. Fredericks.
Fortunately, by your child’s later tween years, as school and friends begin to take up more of her time, she’ll probably naturally be interested in dropping a few extracurriculars.
If, however, your tween wants to pursue more than one thing, Dr. Fisher suggests picking a one-on-one skill building activity, like playing piano, as well as one that focuses on team relationships, like soccer.
When your child is young, skew towards a variety of less-structured activities. As she gets older, urge her to focus on one or two things, but let her choose which ones.
TV vs. iPad
I started out as one of those no-screen moms. My kids didn’t watch television until age 2, just like the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends. I’m strict about cartoons, and I make sure they don’t consume any media with commercials, violence, or excessive fart jokes.
That said, my now-big kids are fiends for the iPad. Educational games are better for them than watching cartoons, right?
Not according to Amy Jordan, Ph.D., co-editor of the Journal of Children and Media, whom I speak with while my kids play on the iPad (hey, I’m being honest). Dr. Jordan reads my mind when she says, “Parents assume educational games are good.” She points out, however, that it’s harder for parents to keep track of time when kids play on the iPad, whereas with a 20-minute cartoon, the end point is clear.
But the biggest problem with most learning games is that “they create a model for education that isn’t replicated in the classroom,” Dr. Jordan says. “The child assimilates the idea that ‘if I learn something, I get a prize or level up,’ which is not how, say, math lessons work. Our educational system rewards delayed gratification.”
In other words, students need to develop the ability to keep trying, even amid challenges. “Children who are able to resist immediate temptation do better in life,” Dr. Jordan notes. So while a game that trains kids to crave instant rewards might help them with memorization, it doesn’t set up a learning process that will serve them well later.
The iPad is no better (or worse) than the TV — so keep it to an occasional treat.
College savings vs. kiddie classes
I have a friend who takes her 5-year-old to Kumon for extra reading and writing help. Seems like a good idea, but I don’t have the cash. Then again, I do put money into college savings accounts every month. It seems like a no-brainer — stash a little away and eventually your kid will thank you for it. And yet the contributions are so piddly in the face of rising tuition, I often wonder whether it would make more sense to direct that money toward boosting my children’s academic skills now.
So I threw around numbers with Ron Lieber, the “Your Money” columnist for The New York Times and author of The Opposite of Spoiled (out in February). Say I drop $500 (less than $50 a month) into a savings account over a year. “If that money earns 7 percent a year for the next 15 years, it will nearly triple by the time your child starts college,” he says. “That’s the value of saving early and letting the interest feed on itself.”
As for the value of the enrichment programs, that depends on what kind of student you have, explains Francie Alexander, Scholastic’s chief academic officer (and a former teacher). “If your child is struggling, it’s better to pay for extra help now than to save for later,” says Alexander. And you can always return to saving once grades stabilize.
It’s also worth spending on supplemental classes if your child shows a deep interest in a subject, notes Alexander: “Colleges look for that kind of passion and how a kid pursued it.”
No college savings is worse, unless your kid needs extra help. Keep in mind, too, that your school or town may offer free enrichment resources.
In the end, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. But as with most parenting quandaries, if you listen closely enough, the answer (like a child) will eventually make itself heard.
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