I have worked with hundreds of kids of all ages, mostly individually for about 20 years, and one amazing advantage of having gone through that before having your own child is that it gives you perspective. I always believed every parent was doing the best they knew how and that there was some innate wisdom to parenthood I had to respect, even if I disagreed with their methods. So I kept my mouth shut, followed their lead and watched.. watched a lot. I also knew I would be making my own mistakes, often, even if I could see clearly what the best path was when the child was not mine. It is always easier to see things when you are peaking in than when you are drowning.
A few lessons remained, though, now that so many of these kids are in college. Since many are still in touch often and some are like family now, I get to see how certain styles of parenting have affected them. The main pattern I could see is that empowering a child isn’t always what we have come to believe it is.
There seems to be a trend in the past generation or so, of removing all obstacles for our kids. We make hard decisions for them, give them choices even if they don’t fully grasp their consequences, give them praise when they don’t deserve it, require no sense of responsibility or community from them and, my personal pet peeve, give them awards for doing nothing but showing up, and they even get driven there when they do show up. They are being told they are smart, but not complimented for how much effort they put into things, and treated like they aren’t capable of much. A direct consequence of that is that colleges now call these kids “teacups”, because they break so easily. The most direct consequence I have seen from helicopter parenting has been exactly that, kids who don’t know how to make their own choices, who doubt themselves, who struggle with insecurities and a lack of sense of purpose, who expect immediate rewards for things they haven’t earned and who deal with adversity by letting someone else deal with the problem instead of as a motivation to try harder. Over protecting is as dangerous as neglect.
I fully understand those parents, truly and completely, because I have many of the same instincts. I have a mother bear type personality and I can be viciously protective even of kids who are not my own, I struggle with fears of what would happen if I stepped away, and I desperately want to keep my child from pain. A few things make it even harder. The fact that I have a child who is so sensitive and empathetic that she sobs heartfelt tears whenever she sees a baby cry on the street and the parent doesn’t pick them up for example, or the fact that she has an incredible capacity to see good in people, even under unlikely situations, and I want to keep her that way. Once, after being pushed repeatedly by a younger child, and hearing the child’s parents tell her to stop being mean, she replied ” She isn’t mean. She is just too little to use her words and she wants me to come with her.” I fear that being left to her own devices early would kill that in her, in a way I have watched it be killed in other kids. Survival of the fittest should be another name for pre-school.The one thing that gets on the way of my trying to help my child with everything is the knowledge that it will not benefit her in the long run.
So I stop myself when she asks for help with something I know she can accomplish on her own, I say no when saying yes would be much, much easier and I let her struggle through her frustration if I know she can come out on the other side. We play board games where she loses at least once every 3 turns, and she knows well that picking up after herself is a requirement before we move on to the next activity, and that we share setting the table duties and even some light chores in the house. It’s all organic, and most of the time she asks to help. We are a community, and she understands pitching in, even at age 2.
I try to focus more on things she worked at longer than usual and on letting her negotiate with her friends on her own whenever possible. I still can’t help but become a shadow behind her when another kid is a hitter and seems to be coming for her. Usually that is all it takes, a silent stern look from an adult, to keep them in check, but I expect that shadow to step farther and farther away as she grows older.
The steps of letting go have been carefully calculated and are always a huge effort for me. I don’t really want to let go. I know how short childhood is, and I am enjoying every drop of hers. My week back at my part time job after she was born, I cried all day, and she was with my husband! There is constant re-evaluating and questioning on my part about where she needs a lot of support, and where I need to step away. I probably wouldn’t dwell as much if I hadn’t seen the results of too much interference. So it has become a matter of trust. Trust that occasional failure is an important step towards success, that not reaching goals immediately teaches perseverance and that loving her sometimes means not helping.
I am learning with her, for her, everyday, that failure is, at times, a great gift.