“Mom, I need help!”
“Mom, please don’t help me.”
Children are wired to overcome challenges. A newborn trying vainly to lift her head and a high school senior juggling AP classes, a job, and extracurricular activities are both reaching just beyond their limits to stretch their capabilities. We parents are supposed to help, but not too much; a neglectful parent and a helicopter or snowplow parent can severely harm kids’ development. It’s quite easy to identify extremes; a mother who sits around drinking while her child is left to do all of the housework is not providing enough help, while a mother who accompanies her 22-year-old son to a job interview is too involved.
But for most parents, choosing how much assistance to offer is a series of moment-by-moment decisions, and it’s not always obvious when the parent should sit back and allow the child to struggle rather than lending a hand. Here are my thoughts on the matter:
What’s the Child’s Temperament?
One of my kids, when faced with a problem, is like the Terminator, only with mood swings. When the child wants to figure something out, this kid can’t be reasoned with, can’t be bargained with…and absolutely will not stop. Ever. I was quite distressed when watching this child, as an infant, try to put rings onto a spindle, fail, scream, and then freak out when I tried to take the rings away; eventually the kid managed to do it. Ditto with crawling, walking (which the child did early), sorting shapes, and doing simple puzzles. For this child, the big challenges have been knowing when to ask for help, managing the emotions that come with confronting frustration, and learning to back away to take a breather when something is proving tricky.
Another of my kids gives up at the first difficulty. As in, we’re doing a puzzle, and the kid wants to stop because the box lid is hard to open. This child needs to be pushed to persevere, and to be shown that effort pays off.
All of my children can benefit from problem-solving techniques such as breaking down a large problem into smaller problems, but they each need different approaches because they have different strengths and weaknesses. As always, being a student of your child will help you figure out what to do.
How Risky is Failure for the Child?
This, again, is a tricky matter. A child on a swingset can break an arm, but it is the height of foolishness never to allow your children to take physical risks. On the other hand, encouraging your 5-year-old to climb steep roofs is not the best idea, either. Allowing a 16-year-old to operate a fast, heavy machine that requires a great deal of judgment (and a little luck) to use safely scares me, but of course I will not prevent my children from getting their drivers’ licenses unless I have some better reason than my protect-the-babies instinct screaming at me. We will, of course, ensure that our kids understand and can follow the rules of the road before we turn them loose on an unsuspecting public (which includes some pretty lousy drivers).
Schoolwork is an area where kids need the opportunity to fail, but also need some limitations as to how badly they can screw up. The mother who didn’t discover her child’s failing GPA until his senior year needed to step in sooner. The mother who sends angry emails to her kindergartner’s teacher because he got a mediocre grade on his journal needs to back off. We as parents must know when our kids are not learning foundational material, but also when our kids are not developing the kind of independent study and organizational habits they will need when they are older. A “D” in middle school doesn’t mean much, on its own; a series of bad grades, however, are a warning sign that something isn’t right and that the parent needs to figure out what’s missing (motivation, diligence, help for a disability, good instruction, etc).
And the internet. Oh, the internet. How much privacy is a minor entitled to online? Don’t ask me. I supervise my 8-year-old’s every move on the internet and will continue to do so, but at some point I am going to have to pull back and trust that I’ve taught her to avoid things like giving away personal information, spending too much time online, getting wrapped up in her internet image, navigating to porn sites, etc. Bad things can happen on the internet, and a stupid social media post when you’re 16 can haunt you decades later, but…sitting over my kids’ shoulders when they’re 17 isn’t healthy or helpful.
For a child who’s able to ask for help, I like to be occupied with something else, something that I can drop in a few minutes. If I’m washing dishes while my kid is wrestling with a math problem, the child will have the reassurance that help is on the way along with a few extra minutes to try to solve the difficulty. Quite often, my assistance is not needed by the time I put down the dish, rinse and dry my hands, and walk over. If the kid is still stumped, then it is probably a case where I truly am needed to help the kid through the issue.
My husband and I use activities that my kids enjoy to stretch their capabilities and persistence. They like hiking, so we take them on progressively more difficult hikes. We get them to learn to read by looking at books about things that interest them. The kid who gives up easily likes puzzles and is good at them, so we do a lot of puzzles.
When we have to help a child improve at something the child really dislikes–household chores come to mind–we make the child’s new goals doable. Expectations for a child should be high, but possible. Again, it is up to you, the parent, to know when your kid is “finding her edge” in any given task, and recognize that a boring or unpleasant task is going to result in less baseline stamina than a fun activity.
Finally, I mess up. Of course. I jump in and try to help too much, to the child’s annoyance. Less often, I make the opposite mistake and offer too little help. I do not think that these mistakes will doom my kids either to a life of frustration or to helplessness. As I stated at the beginning of this post, kids overcome challenges from birth onward. It really doesn’t matter too much that we parents fumble in our efforts to raise them; as long as we’re good enough, our children will grow and learn and do. It’s a miracle that happens all the time.