The recent college admission scandal brings up many thoughts on today’s parenting challenges. This column is the third 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 grow into thriving adults.
Where is the line between helping our kids navigate life experiences and sheltering them from what life throws their way or inadvertently denying them valuable life lessons?
Parenting is a balancing act. It’s a seesaw on which I am constantly scurrying between ends.
Do I give the answer or allow my kids to discover it on their own? Do I pick up their mess for them or ask that they do it themselves? Do I come down with a consequence or limit, or do I understand, empathize and let them off the hook? Do I hold them accountable, or do I wonder if they are too young to live up to the expectations I am setting? Do I make excuses for them, pick up the pieces or preload them with information so they don’t fail, or do I sit back, close my mouth and let them figure out how the world responds to them and their behaviors and decisions? The list of where to find the balance is endless.
I’ve been rethinking some of what I wrote in my May 1 column: “Let’s admit it, we micromanage, we plan our kids’ lives, we fill their weeks with activity upon activity, we get angry at them for not living up to our expectations, we rescue before they fail out of fear as much as we do out of love.”
I didn’t mean that as a judgment — I do many things for my kids out of fear (fear of their emotions, disappointment, failure, judgment from others, etc.).
In digging a bit deeper, it’s likely this fear comes from a place of love. We love our kids so much that we don’t want to see them hurt, and the possibility of that potential for hurt scares us.
Is it possible to love, let go and acknowledge that life is full of ups and downs? While it’s hard to see our kids suffer in any way, life is filled with disappointment and hardship. We hope those disappointments and hardships are not traumatic.
Regardless of the degree of hardship, our job as parents is to support our kids, acknowledge their struggle and teach them skills to get back up. It is their struggle to have.
Our job is not to shelter them from life. Just as we do not learn to ride a bike from watching someone else ride one, we cannot learn resilience — bouncing back and moving forward — without experiencing challenge. That is crucial to our development.
At the same time, when I think deeply about my motives for how I interact with my kids, I see how some of them can be strictly fear-based. In their article in The Washington Post, Caitlin Gibson and Ellen McCarthy ask whose needs we are trying to meet when we do things for our kids or push our them toward some lofty accomplishment. I wonder if there are times we are meeting our own needs as parents.
I bring this up gently and without judgment. Turning the mirror in on myself, as we all can do, I ask: What are my needs for my kids to accomplish A, B and C or be X, Y and Z? How much am I caught up in the end result of my kids’ childhood? How much do I feel that my kids are a reflection of me? And how much do I worry that my kids won’t be better than my own deficiencies or circumstances?
So while our fears about our kids’ lives can stem from love, they can also sometimes stem from fear, and, dare I say, fear of our own inadequacies.
A host of research suggests that helicopter, snowplow, overcontrolling or overprotective parenting can have negative impacts on kids. Kids who are overparented may not be good at making decisions or fighting their own battles. They may be less capable of managing their emotions and behaviors, making it difficult for them to navigate school and social environments.
So now what? If you have tendencies to do for your kids what they can do for themselves (and we all have some of these), here are some ideas. Richard Weissbourd from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education advises to ask your child, “Am I overinvolved? Is it helpful or harmful to you? How would you like me to be involved?”
And then consider when your help is overstepping boundaries and leading to more harm than good. It’s OK to help our kids out of kindness. We do that for friends, family, co-workers and even strangers. What we don’t want to do is rescue them from repeated behavior.
For example, bringing your children their homework they’ve left at home one time is different from bringing it to them if they are chronically forgetting it. Making your child’s lunch because they are late one morning is different from making it for them every day. Talking to your child about how to navigate a difficult conversation or make a phone call is different than having that conversation or making that call for them.
Again it’s a balance. We feel good when we support others. We want to be kind. We want to model generosity. We also don’t want to enable patterns of helplessness and lack of skill.
The lengths parents went to in the college admissions scandal are far beyond what the majority of parents will do for their kids out of both love and fear, yet we can use this story as a learning experience for us all. Importantly it reminds us of the subtle ways we sometimes get in the way of our kids’ developing to their full potential.
Again I say: Take a step back. Breathe. Everything will be OK.