I know I’m not the only one guilty of over-parenting at times. Watching our children struggle hurts. There is a natural inclination for us to want to help them.
For example, your child cannot do the monkey bars. She is so sad that her older sisters can do it and she cannot. So, each time you go to the playground, you help her across the bars by holding her body. “There you go, you did it!” you say. She did?
As parents, we need to know when to sit with the discomfort of watching our child struggle long enough to allow them the chance to succeed. What if all of those times that you went to the playground your daughter struggled, fell, got up and tried again?
What if you used your hands instead to wipe away her tears and told her to keep practicing? She would eventually get it. Your heart may ache during the process but, this time it would truly be hersuccess to celebrate. She would know that she is capable.
These are the moments we need to give our children back. Success does not often come along with instant gratification. It comes with hard work and learning how to pick ourselves up after we fall down a few times.
How will our children ever learn how to pick themselves up if we never let them fall in the first place?
But how do we know when to help or when to wait?
My youngest child suffered from such separation anxiety during the first month of Kindergarten that she actually became physically ill and would shake the night before a day of school. I tried everything to help ease her into the transition and feel comfortable and safe but nothing worked.
After weeks of trying, I finally said “enough is enough” and decided to pull her out of school and let her detox for a few months. It was affecting her health and emotional well-being. She wouldn’t eat worrying about school the next day. She wouldn’t sleep. At only four years old, she was the youngest in her class.
I worried I was being over-protective. Well intentioned friends, family and staff at the school told me to just drop her off and let her cry. They said it would get better. But after weeks of trying it didn’t. I worried that she’d never go back to school if I took her out..but the truth was that she needed me to honor where she was during that time in her life. She was not ready. She needed slower introductions to social situations without me helping. She needed time.
And, in this case, it was the best gift I could have given her.
After keeping her home for a few months, we sent her to a Waldorf Kindergarten and then held her back a year so she once again started traditional kindergarten the following year.
It was like magic. Honoring where she was and allowing her time to grow enabled her to absolutely LOVE her kindergarten experience. That little girl is now twelve years old, in middle school, has sleepovers, a lot of friends and doesn’t want her Mommy to tag along. This is something back then that I could have never imagined for her. Or me.
But in other cases, I became aware of “rescue parenting” tactics that were creeping in and hindering my children’s ability to learn how to problem solve and grow into self-sufficient and independent human beings.
For example, one of my daughters struggled more with fine motor skills growing up. I would watch her fumble and take 20 minutes to tie her shoe laces while her younger sister zipped through the task in 3 minutes. My heart would ache for her.
When she did tie her shoes the knots were often loose and would come undone again. As a result, I found myself helping her or finishing up so she would somehow feel better about herself that her shoes got tied correctly. I wanted to protect her self-esteem. I didn’t want her to trip! My intentions were good.
What I found, however, was the opposite. She eventually shared with me that she felt horrible that I always had to help her. She didn’t mind the time it was taking her to tie her own shoes. It was on her time and as long as she was given a little extra time to get ready (and not expected to do it at the same time as everyone else), she was happy. She was being patient with herself and the process and I was unsatisfied. I was afraid she couldn’t do it. What message was I sending her?
I promised myself that no matter how much she struggled, I was going to let her do it herself. Even if it meant waking her up a bit earlier in the mornings so time was not an issue. Even if it meant the laces became untied and she had to do it again and again.
It was hard and it sure as hell was not instant gratification. It took what seemed like forever.
BUT, I’m proud to say she now ties her shoes VERY and is a teenager! No Velcro necessary. All without me… can you imagine that?
Knowing when to help and when to wait is a hard balance for us as parents. I believe, however, that if (like me) you work on becoming mindful about pausing before you help and make it a priority – you will soon begin to recognize when you are helicopter parenting and when you are truly helping your child in a beneficial way.
And yes, I’m talking to you (and me again, as a reminder to myself):
Mom with the middle school child who could easily learn to make his or her own lunch but you are afraid they won’t include all of the necessary food groups.
Or you, Mom whose daughter desperately wants to learn to do her own hair but you do not like the way it comes out when she does it so you do it yourself rather than letting her learn by trial and error (and go to school looking like that).
Or you, Dad whose teenager keeps oversleeping so you help them out the door by packing up their bag, grabbing their lunch out of the fridge or a million other things that you do each morning to make sure they make their bus on time.
What would happen if they missed the bus, along with first period and had to stay in for detention that day? Maybe they will be less likely to press ‘snooze’ the next morning?
What natural consequences can we allow our children to endure so they can learn from life firsthand?
How many times have you zipped up your child’s coat out of love rather than letting them struggle a bit to learn how to manage it themselves?
Or cut up your older child’s meat rather than allowing them to learn how to properly use a knife?
Or called the parents of the neighbor’s child who just made your son cry without giving him the chance to go work it out first?
I’ve done it TONS of times! And still do. As a matter of fact, I just made my middle schooler’s lunch last night. Again!
Often, in our effort to help our children, we are actually stealing away their independence. We are telling them (without words) that they are incapable, dependent and they can’t do it themselves.
“Do not handicap your children by making their lives easy.” ~Robert A. Heinlein
Life and learning is not always easy. Let’s not always feel like we need to make it so for our children.
My new goal is to make sure whatever I’m doing is helping my child to feel loved, self-sufficient, strong and capable. I want them to have the tools to grow into confident and independent adults that are not afraid to meet a challenge, struggle or yes, even to fall flat on their ass once in a while.
So the next time you go to open up that snack for your child – STOP! Give your child the chance to try to learn how to do it for himself.
“You want a snack? Great, go make a healthy one.”
“You got an undeserved C- on your school paper? That’s horrible! Be sure to work that out with your teacher in the morning and let me know what the plan is.”
“Your friend has been unkind to you? That must have been really hurtful. I hope you can work it out. You have been good friends for so long. You will know in your heart how to find the right words or the decision to make.”
When to step-in and do something immediately:
– Your child is being bullied. – Your child’s health is in danger. – Your child’s safety is at risk. – Your child needs advice or more ideas to figure out how to handle things on his or her own (but let him think it through himself first!). – Your child seems depressed. – Your child has really given it his all but truly needs more help from you. – Your child has physical or mental disabilities that require more assistance. – Your child just isn’t ready to do what you need them to do.
Otherwise, back-off moms and dads and go enjoy a well-deserved moment or two of peace.
Feel free to share this article to help others just please keep the bio below in-tact:
Eileen Foley is a work-at-home mother to four daughters. She writes and publishes Waldorf inspired ebooks and facilitates ecourses for parents, teachers and caregivers at Little Acorn Learning. For over 10 years, Eileen applied her love of nature-based learning in her work as owner and lead teacher at Little Acorn Playgarden in Connecticut. She worked at the Housatonic Valley Waldorf School as their Lead Afterschool Kindergarten Teacher and ran the Morning Glories Program for Parents and Toddlers. Eileen also has worked as the Student Service Director for the Lifeways Northeast Training Programs for Early Childhood Providers. Visit her blog, Little Acorn Blog, or her Facebook Pageor follow Little Acorn Learning on Instagram for more great ideas and activities.