7 ways parents harm their children without even realizing it.

7 ways parents harm their children without even realizing it. August 3, 2014

As a parent, I “blow it” pretty much everyday in some way. Sometimes it’s when I lose my temper and yell at the kids. Other times, it’s when I burp out loud at the dinner table right after I’ve scolded one of my boys for doing the same thing.

With most of my parenting blunders, I’m instantly aware of the mistake which gives me the opportunity to apologize and try to correct it, but I’ve found that some of the most dangerous parenting mistakes aren’t obvious. They’re subtle and stealthy. This makes them even more dangerous, because we can go on doing them for years without even realizing we’re harming our kids in the process!

As I worked with families from all walks of life, I’m convinced that the list below represents some of the most common and most destructive parenting mistakes. I’m not writing this as an “expert,” but just as a Dad who is in the trenches of parenthood and desperately trying to get this right for the sake of my kids and future generations of my family.

If you’re a parent too, let’s commit to stopping these behaviors and being the best we can be for our kids!

Dave Willis Ashley Willis family kids

This is my family: Ashley, Cooper, Connor, Chandler and a baby on the way! The picture is black and white, but in real life, we’re in color. 🙂

(In no particular order)

1. Subtle dishonesty.

Kids are human lie detectors, and we can’t teach them the value of honesty and integrity when we’re willing to be dishonest. One of the most common examples of this is when parents will lie about their child’s age right in front of their son or daughter just to save a few bucks on a kids’ meal or theme park admission ticket. Saving those few extra bucks will cost you a huge amount in the long run with the negative lessons you’re teaching your child about “selective honesty.”

2. Emotional sabotage. 

It’s easy to fly-off-the-handle when one of our children isn’t listening or when they’re being careless or disobedient. Sometimes we’ll even use our emotions just to get a reaction from our kids. This is dangerous, because when we can’t control our emotional reactions to our children, we’re teaching our children that THEY are in control of our emotions (instead of teaching them that WE are in control of our own emotions). This can create  a longterm pattern of emotional dysfunction in the home.

3. The Comparison Trap.

In an attempt to encourage or correct our children, we might point out the example of another child (often a sibling) as a reference point. While this is usually a harmless attempt to bring context to the situation, most children won’t see past the comparison. This can subconsciously train children not to be the best they can be, but rather to find a way to simply “seem better” than their peers and siblings.

For tools to help you build a stronger marriage and family, you can check out my new book “The Seven Laws of Love: Essential Principles for Building Stronger Relationships” (by clicking here).

Dave Willis quote seven laws of love #7lawsoflove book relationships

4. Guilty gifts.

In our culture (I’m writing from an American perspective), we’ve developed a bad habit of buying our kids’ affection with gifts. When we’ve made a mistake or had to work late, we’re much more likely to repay the relational debt with money. This cycle can teach our kids to be materialistic and to see love as a transactional relationship which can be manipulated by money. We all know (or should know) that real love is something much more valuable than that.

5. Putting the happiness of your children ahead of the health of your marriage.

Many couples won’t even go on a Date Night because they’re afraid the children will cry, so to pacify the kids, they never invest in their relationship with each other. Ironically, many of these kids end up crying anyways after divorce rips the family in two. One of the greatest gifts you can give your children is the security that comes from seeing their parents in a loving, committed marriage.

For a HUGE collection of tools to help you build a stronger marriage, you can download our new Marriage App for iPhones and iPads by clicking here. A Facebook login is required to access the app.

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6. Digital babysitters.

I’ve been guilty of this one a lot. In our technology-driven world, it’s easy to plop the kids down in front of a screen so we can get some stuff done. In small doses, this is okay, but it can develop into a dangerous habit where we’re delegating our most sacred duty to TV shows and video games to raise our kids for us. For more on this, check out my post on How to be the biggest influence in your kids’ lives.

7. Hiding your flaws.

We all want our kids to see us as superheroes who never make mistakes, but our kids aren’t looking for perfection; they’re looking for authenticity. When you’ve blown it, own it! Use it as a teaching moment. Remember that God is the only “Perfect Parent” and His Grace has got you covered on those moments when you mess up (and we all have plenty of those moments)!

For more tools to help you become a better spouse and parent, check out my newest book “The 7 Laws of Love: Essential Principles for Building Stronger Relationships” and you can also download our new Marriage App on iTunes by clicking here.

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  • crystel boatwright

    Awesome advice and I can relate to most of these since my children are older. I can see the patterns I did, mostly unknowingly, and think that is some of the reasons why my kids do certain things now. I know it’s hard to redo my parenting back to when my kids were younger but I see where I made errors and for that, I do address them now and it helps to align things right along with prayer. I will tell them on things that I know I’ve made mistakes in (such as not being fully honest but rather showed to be selective in my honesty) an area that I see where I made bad choices. I tell them that what I say or do now contradicts what I did and taught them then but I am learning as well and that I ask them to forgive me where I led them wrong. It doesn’t correct it but it shows that I am willing to admit my wrongs and confront them and show them a better way. My children are now 18, 15, and 12 and I have seen God helping them make better choices and changing things that they were doing because I showed them I allowed God to change me and show me a better way. Even though others may not see it this way, I feel as though that’s a plus on their side because they have witnessed first hand how God can turn things, situations and people around. Thank You Jesus for wisdom, change, the right mindset, direction, mercy and grace!

  • I have two young boys, 1 and 5 yrs of age. I’m not guilty of doing any of the 7 don’t do’s. But I’m very glad I read your article, so I can keep these don’t do’s in mind. I watch other parents and I think the main one they do the most is letting their child/ren control their emotions. And honestly by the end of the day they are exhausted and nothing has been accomplished behavior wise. Thank you for writing this article. I can be a better parent today than I was yesterday.

  • Bj Thompson Whitt

    Simple effective ways to more productive parenting . Thanks for setting the bar, so parents can aim higher. Our children/now grandchildren always do better when we set boundaries. Kids feel secure in knowing what we expect. They will want to do the right thing when they realize they are loved unconditionally. Giving them too many choices can be very overwhelming. Limit their choices, offer good guidance, encourage children when they’ve done something right or made a wise choice, reinforce positive actions & your children will always feel loved & want to do the same for others. They learn self-respect & then will show others respect.

  • Tood

    I am definitely guilty of a couple of these, but one I am not is subtle lie. This is a very big problem, this is how Satan lured Eve in to sin. I do not lie to my children at all, especially about mythical creatures that leave gifts when they sleep at night. The is a bad problem in their homes of many Christians, we wonder why children don’t believe in God when they grow into adulthood. Why should we expect them to believe in something they can’t see, when we lied to them for years about this for years.

  • Alan Gertonson

    Nailed it! Friendly addendum 6.1:

    When our kids get older, we put up the video games and allow them to go off with friends. “I need to unwind with Candy Crush. I think it will be OK f she goes out with her friends for the sixth night in a row instead of having dinner with us and playing a game as a family afterward.” They don’t need other teenagers raising them any more than they need to be raised by “Call of Duty” or “The Bachelor”.

    Loved it! Keep ’em coming!

  • Rachel Travis

    That’s GREAT INFORMATION!! Would love to buy your book on this…

  • Dawn Bordovsky

    Always thought honesty was the best policy , that way I felt my child would not go out and make the same mistakes . The points you have brought up are very valid ones.

  • Danielle Sant

    Thank you! All so true and written so well!

  • Jenna M

    I really enjoy all of your posts Dave. I share them with my husband every single night. We are newly married and are young parents. Your advice has helped us so much. Our biggest disagreement is that my husband and I dont spend enough couple time together. We love our son, he is our world but my husband couldnt see that he needed to put our marriage before our child in some ways so that the whole family unit could be the happiest we could possibly be. Your posts have helped him see an outside perspective on our situation and has helped him realize that it actually made our son happier when he saw that mommy and daddy were happier. Thank you so much.

  • Mary Sapp

    What about when a parent tells a young child, baby they are bad all the time when they are just being a baby, child? They always don’t remember what you told them, it has to be related with love not anger, with patience’s. Don’t treat a baby older or smarter just because the child is very bright, still just a child needing to learn. I don’t feel like I’m explaining this very well. It is just something I have seen heard, just hate it when parents thinks their child of 1 should act like a 5 year old.

  • John Huie

    I think this is a great. Everyone gets bussy with everything going on and puts things,issues,and social network more of a connection feeling than making the connection to the family that is living life with them.

  • Holly

    Well written and good points! Can I add another one? Sarcasm. My husband can be very sarcastic, but children don’t understand sarcasm. When a child hears something like “Oh good, we have a flat tire”, they hear that you are happy to have a flat tire. And because of this our 10 y.o. has started to question everything that his dad tells him. That was a dangerous practice that we became aware of and are trying to correct. The words that come out of a parent’s mouth are so important.

  • Julie

    Thank you for sharing your experience. God can do anything and your thoughts are a breath of fresh air.

  • Gina

    I have these same feelings about this subject, how old are your children and does the fact of them not believing in these thing cause conflict in the family?

  • L.W.

    Great reminders! Especially #2. I always have to remind myself, “Reacting is not the same as disciplining.”

  • Great article just posted it on The Youth Culture Report.

  • Courtney C

    I think my biggest issue is #2, I have always been a super emotional person and I’m quick to react emotionally. My husband is military and gone a lot, so I have to really watch my self when I’m the only parent around. I will keep this list in mind, I think #5 is a big issue not every parent sees eye to eye on but is important. We had our first child while we were stationed over seas and we didn’t do a date night or have any time to our self for a long time because there was no family around to watch the baby and our relationship suffered for it.

  • dave willis

    Thanks for reposting the article!

  • anon

    I just wanted to point out that along with guilty gifts, parents will do the same thing with food. If the child is upset for some reason, mad at their parents, etc, I so often hear “Hey, how about some ice cream?” (or candy, etc) to try and get the childs forgiveness.

  • Cindy

    Guilty of #5! My children are so wild compared to other children at our church and I’m always asking them to act more like so and so. I realize now it’s my own pride that makes me want them to be more like someone else’s child. And so I have to always discipline them in love and not by comparison.

  • dave willis

    Cindy, thanks for sharing. I struggle with the “comparison trap” too. God makes each child masterfully unique, and I’m sure your children will be future world-changers. Just keep loving them and encouraging them. God bless.

  • Chris

    What about allowing your kids to see conflict and resolution.

    Often times parents will fight in front of their children but never allow them to see the make up process(apologies, admitting wrong, forgiveness) or they refuse to allow their kids see the conflict at all.

    I think it’s important for our children to learn conflict and resolution and one of the best ways is through witnessing their parents do it in the appropriate way.

  • Chris

    Not wanting to take away from what you have, I love reading all your articles and this one is great too.

  • Kat

    These says it all. I’m not yet a parent, but these serves as a lesson and inspiration. I will definitely share all these to my fiancé, we really have a heart in making a family, and this time making it even more beautiful. Thanks and GOD Bless

  • Christine

    Yet another ‘must have a date night’ push. While I do enjoy getting a date out with my husband, we can not and should not base our relationship off of how romantic we make our life. Connecting with each other on a regular basis is important, but manufacturing outings is not always true connection. We are called to sacrificial love for each other, and for the children we are gifted with. Divorce is not caused by a lack of romance, but a lack of commitment and willingness to put aside our selfish desires and give to each other. To imply that caring for the children, especially when they are small, will destroy a marriage is to foster the misunderstanding that it is based on feelings instead of actions. While the years of caring for children can add stress to a relationship, it doesn’t have to, if the couple understands that they are together in that care, and together when the care ends. It’s time to stop laying guilt on couples who aren’t able to regularly have date nights, or weekend getaways. If their focus is on God’s plan for them as a couple (who, by the way, never talks about romance in His admonition to husbands & wives), and His Word and Will guide their lives in every area, then it is not on any human to tell them they are on the wrong path.

  • Tamra Harpestad

    I totally agree, Christine. My grandparents raised 8 children and they never had date nights, yet they were very close. That’s not to say getting out together alone isn’t beneficial now and then, but true intimacy happens in the walking out of the marital journey together, and in the meeting of the minds. I find it in the little things like holding hands in the evening, the small rituals we embrace as couples, and in enjoying or children together.

  • Christa

    I, myself, do not have children, but I know my parents were guilty of some of these things. I believe all parents are. They don’t realize what they are doing until it’s already done. This can teach new parents what to do and what not to do and hopefully make the best of things with their children. I know if I should ever have children, this will help me through my life and theirs. Thank you for the awesome advice.

  • Susan Meachen

    We have 2 great kids 1 in college the other in middle school. I am so proud of our children they are great young adults. We never did any of the “Don’ts” and it has made our kids better people! I have stood back and watched a lot of parents do almost everything your article said not to do, I pray for their children.

  • Donna

    My daughter was recently told by her father(my ex) that parenting does not come with a manual and he is doing the best he can. After reading this I beg to differ. There is help out there for those who want it. Thank you for your words of wisdom. I am guilty of all of the above. I have 3 older children 21, 18, and 16 who I feel are lost souls. The boys 21 and 16 are the most lost. I beat myself up daily trying to figure out where it all went so horribly wrong. I was blessed almost 3 years ago with a baby and felt it was God saying here you go try again. I don’t want to make the same mistakes. Matter of fact I have even tried to change my way of thinking. I tell myself that they are lessons for me to learn from, not mistakes. And this is why I found your post today. I believe is was not by mistake that is was on my facebook wall this morning. This was part of the parenting manual that God has provided for us. Help is out there we just have to take time to look for it. I am not on twitter but would like to read anything else you have! Thanks again and have a wonderful day!

  • Eric

    Number 8 — Watching TV shows uncritically. Nearly every TV show is written by people who are pushing one or more messages, either consciously or unconsciously: guns are (good/bad), sexual purity is (honorable/lame), people of faith are (normal/weird), the _______ (fill in name of political party) is everything that’s wrong with America, and so on. We declined to have cable TV (best decision ever) but there was always Blockbuster and the Internet. When watching shows with our young children, we often took advantage of opportunities to identify and deconstruct the subtle messages that were being preached to us through the screen. As a result our kids grew up smart, wise, good-hearted, and hard to fool.

  • Andrew Moss

    I say number seven is bullshit. Even if there was a god how. Could he be perfect doesnt the bible say he was once just a simple man. If im not perfect has a man then how would god be perfect

  • Jennifer Mann

    456 I am guilty off.

  • brandi

    I read this and can relate to most of these. I will definitely reevaluate things and my actions thank u

  • dave willis

    Andrew, you’re free to comment here even if you don’t agree with me, but in the future, please don’t use profanity as this is a family-friendly site. As for your mistaken view of what the Bible says, here’s one of the many passages that address the perfect nature of God…”As for God, his way is perfect:The Lord’s word is flawless; He shields all who take refuge in him.” Psalm 18:30

  • Julie

    Those who claim to have never done any of these are usually the worst offenders. Just an opinion of a 20+ year school administrator. The best parents I encounter are those willing to put their flaws on the table and work towards better parenting. None of us are perfect.

  • BlueEyedGurlieGurl

    There are no perfect parents… I was guilty of just about all of these. Our sons are adults now, they face struggles just like everyone else. They are committed followers of Christ and are good men. Remember:: God picks up all the broken pieces and uses them make us all stronger.
    Best advice for any parent: teach the Word to your children, teach them to walk in Truth, teach them Who to run to…. Learn from mistakes and grow.

  • The Survival Curator

    Really good points and I’m guilty of some of them. I take BlueEyedCurlieGirls’s advice to teach the Word of God to your children. I also think it’s important to admit and ask forgiveness when we stuff up. We need to model the behaviors that we want our children to emulate. Thanks for this post and God bless.