Think you’re helping your kids whenever you step in to fix their problems? You may want to think again.
From just about the moment our children are born, they’re inundated with challenges that compel us to intervene. And to some degree, they need our help and guidance. We are, after all, their primary mentors and role models. But there comes a time when we need to step aside and let things play out on their own – and for us, the difficulty is often in knowing just when we need to do so.
The urge to “fix it”
Our kids face challenges every day. And for parents, there’s often an easy way out – a “quick fix” to allow everyone to move forward without solving the problem. If your child refuses to eat their vegetables, you can heat up some chicken fingers. If your teenage son or daughter is struggling with an essay or science project, you can step in and do the work for them. If they get a less than satisfactory grade on a math test, you can go to the school and yell at the teacher. If your twenty-something child gets a job interview, you can tag along and chat with the employer.
As parents, we’re capable of doing all these things. We can step in to “fix it” whenever our child comes to us with a problem. And it’s often tempting to do so, since we don’t want to see our kids endure pain, failure or disappointment. But sometimes, by intervening, we’re only making things worse. We may just be insulating our kids from challenges that they would do far better to tackle themselves.
Teacher Jessica Lahey, writing in The Atlantic, calls this overparenting. She warns that it’s detrimental to a child’s development, since it has “the potential to ruin a child’s confidence and undermine an education in independence.” Essentially, these parents may think they’re helping, when really they’re denying their children crucial opportunities to learn.
“Children make mistakes,” she says, “and when they do, it’s vital that parents remember that the educational benefits of consequences are a gift, not a dereliction of duty. Year after year, my ‘best’ students – the ones who are happiest and successful in their lives – are the students who were allowed to fail, held responsible for missteps, and challenged to be the best people they could be in the face of their mistakes.”
What do we do instead?
It’s easy to simply say that parents should know when to “butt out.” What are some of the best ways to do so?
Broadly speaking, we need to give them the tools they need to be able to make their own choices. Allow them the opportunities they need to learn. Answer their questions and support them through their challenges, but keep enough distance to let things play out more or less organically. Help them understand that they have agency, that they are capable of learning and bettering themselves. Teach them to evaluate their own efforts and experiences so they can build on their strengths.
According to psychologist Jolanta Burke, we may even need to re-think the way we praise our kids. Simply telling them how wonderful and smart they are, for instance, can actually be counter-productive as it leads kids to tie their successes and failures to their personal qualities rather than their efforts. “If you praise the child for being smart,” she says, “when they don’t do well they automatically think it is because they are not smart.”
Instead, she says, try praising the process – the effort itself – rather than the person. That way, if they do well on a project, they’re more likely to see it as the result of solid work than of simply being smart. Or conversely, if they receive a disappointing mark on an assignment, they’re less likely to beat themselves up about it and more able to reflect upon where their efforts might have fallen short of their goal. They can then internalize that lesson as they approach the next challenge.
It essentially comes down to this: problem solving is one of the most important life skills they’ll ever learn; but in order for them to learn it, we need to get out of their way. If that means they have to fail from time to time, then as harsh as it sounds, so be it. Because they can’t learn from success or failure if we’re constantly intervening on their behalf. And though it may be difficult, we need to resist the pressure to “rescue” them whenever they face a new obstacle.
Ultimately, we want our kids to do well in life, but that’s simply not good enough in and of itself: we need to empower them to make that journey on their own.