Clueless: 5 things we don’t know about our kids

Children thrive when their parents are sensitive and responsive. But even conscientious parents can be clueless about important things. In fact, many of us are clueless about our cluelessness. We just don’t realize that we’re out of touch.

Want some examples? Here’s a countdown of five key areas in which researchers have checked up on families and found a mismatch between parents’ beliefs and reality.

5. Many parents don’t realize that their kids are couch potatoes.

In studies of both American and British and families, researchers fitted children with wrist monitors that measured how much aerobic exercise kids were getting. Then they compared the results with the subjective reports of parents. In both studies, most parents of inactive children mistakenly thought their kids were getting enough exercise.

4. Parents tend to underestimate the weight of their overweight children.

In a review of 69 published studies conducted worldwide, researchers found that 50% of parents with overweight or obese kids weren’t savvy to it, and the most clueless parents were the ones with young children. As the researchers note, parents are sometimes slow to realize it isn’t just baby fat any more. Checking with your pediatrician about your child’s weight is a good idea, because this is one of those situations where early intervention can make an important difference.

3. Many parents don’t understand the extent of their children’s nighttime fears.

Here’s a straightforward study design: Ask parents if their kids feel frightened at night, and then let the kids speak (privately) for themselves. When researchers did this in Australia and the Netherlands, they found that most kids admitted to struggling with nighttime fears. But many parents were unaware of these problems.

2. Parents are misjudging the timing of their children’s natural sleep rhythms.

As I’ve noted in this blog post about too early bedtime, a recent study of toddlers found that many parents were sending their kids to bed before their brains had produced enough melatonin – the hormone that makes us feel sleepy. Needless to say, this can cause bedtime battles – and sleep problems too – so it’s important to find a bedtime that meshes with your child’s biological clock. If your child’s clock is out-of-sync with the schedule she has to keep (because of school time or some other factor you can’t change), the best approach is to gradually alter her circadian rhythms.

1. Parents are kidding themselves about their children’s emotional lives.

Following the same approach as the researchers who studied nighttime fears in children, Kristin Lagatutta and her colleagues interviewed more than 500 American families—parents and children separately—and found evidence that most parents underestimated their children’s darker emotions. Parents thought their kids were more optimistic and less anxious than they really were.

If you’re thinking, “This isn’t me, because I believe my child is pessimistic or anxious!” take note: The parents who rated their children’s emotions more negatively were also off the mark. It seems that many of these parents were projecting their own worries and fears onto their kids.

The take-home lesson? Children are independent beings with their own perspectives, needs, and emotions. It’s surprisingly easy to underestimate the negative stuff, or blur the line between what’s bothering you and what’s bothering your child. Can we try to be a bit more objective? It’s not easy, but it’s worthwhile. The first step is recognizing that our own perspectives — and wishful thinking — might be getting in the way.

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1 thought on “Clueless: 5 things we don’t know about our kids”

  1. I’ve been blindsided a few times by my oldest (age 6 now) about fears and anxiety. He’s the worrier in a laid-back family. What’s really helped for both of us is to take a few minutes at the end of each day, after stories and songs and lights out, to lie down with him in the dark and talk. Usually it’s just a light chat about school and friends, but there’s something about the darkness that lends itself to deeper confessions as well. Feeling safe in the dark in my arms, he can talk openly about things that are worrying him.

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