What we don't always realize, however, is that we also inadvertently teach them lessons that are not so beneficial - lessons which can, in fact, be harmful or dangerous. Some of these things include:
1) Your child's feelings don't matter
If anyone were to ask you if your child's feelings are important, you most likely would answer "of course!" And you mean that. And you try to reinforce that by telling your child that. But sometimes our actions as parents teach a child more than our words do. One good example of this:
Your young child gets angry at his grandma. In an outburst, he exclaims "I hate Grandma!" You immediately respond with "You don't hate Grandma. You love Grandma." Perhaps you even start to point out all the good things Grandma has done for him.
What you don't realize, however, is that you just invalidated your child's feelings. You just told your child how he feels - or rather, how he should feel. You've just told him that his feelings don't matter, and that he has no say in how he feels. He must feel a certain way - your way.
The better way to handle this: Validate your child's feelings first and foremost. And, take this as an opportunity to teach a child about emotions. "I understand you're angry with Grandma. What did Grandma do?" By this, you are validating your child's feelings while also teaching him the better term for what he's feeling, and teaching him to differentiate between anger and hate. And then you can continue the lesson with how to deal with that anger - perhaps this would be for him to explain to Grandma why he got angry.
2) Your child has no control over his/her body
This one is one I know I have been guilty of before, but is also one I very strongly feel we need to be careful of. We all want our children to know that if someone tries to touch them inappropriately (i.e. sexual molestation), they should tell that person to stop. And when we feel our child is old enough to understand this concept, we do tell our child this. But consider this example:
Your daughter's uncle has been visiting your house and is about to leave. He goes to give her a hug goodbye and she says "no!" You insist she hug her uncle.
What you have just done completely contradicts the lesson you want to instill - that a child has the right to tell someone to stop when it comes to touching. This uncle may indeed be a wonderful person who would never harm your daughter (and, 99.9% of the time, this is truly the case). Your daughter isn't saying "no!" because she's scared of him or because he's hurt her. In fact, she may have even just given him a hug willingly and happily and lovingly just hours before that. But in that precise moment, she is simply not in the mood for a hug.
The better way to handle this: "It's okay. You don't have to give him a hug." You can, if you want, offer other alternatives if you're concerned about the uncle being insulted by her behavior - a handshake or high five for example, but again do not push it. If the other person is insulted, be sure to tell that person that it is the child's prerogative to say "no." Don't make excuses for the child's behavior, implying that her behavior is wrong (i,e. don't say "I'm sorry - she's being stubborn today"). Instead, "she doesn't want a hug, and that's okay" is more than sufficient. You have just taught your daughter that she is indeed in charge of who touches her body, and also that you have her back.
3) Your child isn't smart enough, pretty enough, good enough
Naturally, we never want our children to believe they aren't enough. We tell our children they're nice, pretty, smart, helpful, etc. etc. We consistently want to build up our child's self-esteem and try to do exactly that. And yet there are so many ways in which are actions actually tell the child they aren't enough - not fast enough, good enough, smart enough.
When your son starts asserting his independence - wanting to dress himself, or feed himself - perhaps you always insist on doing it yourself. This is completely understandable, especially when you're in a hurry. I mean, seriously, it is so much quicker and easier to do it yourself than to wait for your child. And yet, if this is a constant thing, what you're really doing is teaching your child that they aren't fast enough or good enough.
When you consistently make those comments of "how many times do I have to tell you...", you're telling your child she isn't smart enough to figure out what you're saying.
When you tell your daughter that an outfit makes her look fat, or it looks stupid, you're telling her she's not pretty enough.
When you tell your son that maybe he shouldn't be in a particular sport because all he does is sit the bench, you're telling him he isn't good enough. Maybe even telling him that his apparent inability is a waste of your time (what parent wants to go to all these games if they can't see their child play?).
The better way to handle this: Obviously, with so many different examples, it's hard to give a good way to handle things. It really just boils down to stopping and asking yourself "what am I really teaching my child?" If time constraints make it difficult to allow your child to get dressed herself, consider getting her up a little earlier. Or, limit her options of what to wear that morning to only a few choices (if she's picking out her own clothes), and clothes that are easier for her to put on. Instead of "how many times do I have to tell you...", simply repeat the rule ("We do not hit people") and follow through consistently with a consequence. Do not insult your child's choice of dress. Do not demean your child's inability to play sports, but instead work with him on developing those skills, and/or encourage other hobbies (without saying "how about you try art instead of basketball?").
Take opportunities to teach valuable lessons
There are probably many other ways we inadvertently teach our children lessons we don't want them to learn. And this by no means makes us bad parents. It simply makes us parents. But I think it is important that as parents, we always take the time to assess what our actions are really teaching our children. And it is equally important that we take whatever opportunities are given us to teach our children valuable life lessons.
Even "screwing up" gives us one such opportunity. Many parents I know (including myself at times) brush those mistakes under the rug. We tell ourselves we'll do better next time, and just move along from the mistake. But we miss a chance to teach our children by doing this.
The better way to handle this: You've just insulted your child unintentionally by telling her an outfit makes her look fat, or by forcing him to hug a family member. Instead of just brushing it off and moving on, take the time to talk to your child. Sincerely apologizing for what you did wrong - not just a blanket apology, but a specific one. "I shouldn't have disrespected you by making you hug Grandpa. I am sorry." or "I shouldn't have said that about your outfit." And ask for forgiveness.
Some of the best lessons we can teach our children are to 1) admit they made a mistake; b) apologize and ask for forgiveness; and c) both give forgiveness, and accept forgiveness from others. This combination of lessons can truly only be taught by example - by watching trusted, loving caregivers admit they, too, screw up and by hearing them ask for forgiveness.
We will always make mistakes as parents. There is not such thing as a perfect parent. The best we can do is always ask ourselves: Are we benefiting our children with our words and actions, or are we setting them up for potential problems? Do our actions really convey the message we want to teach our child?