Closeup Rachel Wigglesworth

Rachel Wigglesworth, once a wildlife biologist, turned her research skills toward another passion: childhood development and parenting.

The recent college admission scandal brings up many thoughts on today’s parenting challenges. This column is the first in a biweekly four-part series that explores our deep love for our kids, anxieties we may have about their future and how we can help our kids to grow into thriving adults.

I love my kids fiercely.

I sometimes love my kids to the point where I don’t want to see them suffer. It can be hard to see them struggle, to be emotionally distraught, to see some outside influence hurt them. I want my kids to grow up to be emotionally healthy and have a plethora of character strengths. And there are times when I just want to make life easy for them so that they don’t struggle as adults.

We all want our children’s lives to be better than ours, and there are many ways we try to make that so. There are also many ways we (unintentionally) shield them from life’s (necessary) challenges.

The recent college admissions scandal shows the extremes of what we might do to try to ensure our children’s happiness and success. Wealthy parents paid millions to get their kids into prominent American colleges by cheating on standardized tests or bribing coaches to falsely designate those kids as athletic recruits.

While most of us won’t go to those extremes, there are more subtle ways that we shield our children, remove obstacles and pave their way to help them get to our ideal of the “good life.”

We do this out of the best of intentions.

Yet the labels for this current parenting trend don’t reflect our deep love and concern for our kids and the motivation behind these parenting choices. They talk about us only as being anxious and overbearing. We are called “helicopter parents,” hovering over our sons’ and daughters’ every move to make sure they don’t make a mistake, or “snowplow” or “lawn mower” parents, removing all the obstacles from our kids’ paths so they don’t have to encounter hardship.

Simon Sinek, a motivational business speaker and author, talks about challenges millennials face in the workplace. He blames many of those challenges on “failed parenting strategies.” Although he might be right that some challenges are a result of how this generation was raised, using the term “failed parenting strategies” only alienates parents and leads to us feeling badly about ourselves in a world where that is already so easy to do.

Rather than labels that tell us we aren’t doing right by our kids, what parents need is compassion, understanding and support. Being a parent raising children in today’s world has become fraught with anxiety, and sometimes we may go to extremes to quell our anxieties.

At the same time, those labels open our eyes.

There are many times when we wittingly or unwittingly remove the obstacles for our kids, step in to prevent failure or do things for them that are well within their abilities to do for themselves. Often we do that for understandable reasons: We want to be helpful and we don’t want to see our kids struggle and fail. Sometimes we do this because it is easier.

It’s easier for us to wipe the table than to ask our 5-year-old to develop that skill. It is easier to challenge the coach’s decision or the teacher’s grade than to help our kids develop the courage to advocate for themselves. It is easier to point out all the potential pitfalls of a decision to our children ahead of time than to let them learn from the natural consequences of their choices (within the realm of safety). It is easier to pay for our kids’ cellphone service than to ask them to get a job to cover some of the cost when they are old enough.

Yet think about the messages we send when we take the easy path, doing things for our kids that they are capable of doing for themselves. We are inadvertently telling them they’re not capable, they’re fragile, tasks must be done perfectly and we can do it better. It implies a lack of faith in their abilities and in them as people.

While I certainly don’t believe in or condone immoral or illegal actions to ensure our kids’ happiness, I do believe most of what we do for them is done with the best intentions. There are times we might be trying to help our kids in situations in which it might be better if we stepped aside, but calling us helicopter parents implies that we are deliberately being bad parents. What I want us to all understand is that we do what we do for our kids out of deep love — and sometimes deep fear.

Except on rare occasions, like the college admissions scandal, we aren’t intentionally robbing our kids of important life experiences. We simply want the best for them. It’s that sometimes our fear of their failure and heartache get the better of us, and sometimes the challenges are too great for us to act in a way that always reflects our good intentions.

Whether you are a wealthy actress paying millions to secure your child a spot at a university or you are simply a parent worried about your child’s potential failure in school, sports or the social realm, it is important to remember that sometimes the best way to show our love is to let our kids fail.

Rachel Wigglesworth has a master’s degree in parent and family education. She offers classes, coaching and customized groups to parents and caregivers of children and teens at GrowingGreatFamilies.org. Email her at growinggreatfamilies@gmail.com or find her on Facebook.

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