My Response to “Please Don’t Help My Kids”

A lovely friend of mine wrote to me and asked what I thought of this particular blog post entitled, “Please Don’t Help My Kids.”  And, I do have some thoughts about it.  In fact, this is a rather long post.  I guess I have a lot of thoughts on it.  Get yourself a cuppa tea or a nice glass of water and lemon and snuggle in.

Basically, the writer is saying that she’d appreciate it if other folks would respect her parenting decision to allow her kids to struggle with things and accomplish them or learn the lessons inherent in failing to accomplish them, even though they tried.  I get her point.  I know how good it feels to, for instance, open a jar by myself that was giving me a lot of trouble, or bleed the oil burner line when there was air in it and our furnace stopped working.  I did that all by myself.  I figured it out, and I did it, and because I did it we had heat in the dead of winter, and no one had to come and rescue us.  You go, girl.

What have I learned from those experiences?  I learned that I am smart, capable, and if I had to get something done, I could more than likely figure it out and do it myself.  In fact, I have a core belief that says this:  “If anyone can do a thing, I mean if a thing can be done by someone, then I can do it, too.”  At least in theory.  And, that is good for my self-esteem, no doubt.  Remember that I am 55 years old.  I’ve been doing this life thing for a while.

There are a few things about this post that bother me.  I think it will be best if I go point by point.

She starts the blog post off with these provocative paragraphs:

playground slide“Please do not lift my daughters to the top of the ladder, especially after you’ve just heard me tell them I wasn’t going to do it for them and encourage them to try it themselves.

“I am not sitting here, 15 whole feet away from my kids, because I am too lazy to get up. I am sitting here because I didn’t bring them to the park so they could learn how to manipulate others into doing the hard work for them. I brought them here so they could learn to do it themselves.”

Right away, we get the impression that these daughters are quite young.  If they’re so young that they are liftable and might feel unequal to the challenge, why is this mom sitting “15 whole feet away”?!  Between the polar opposites of “sit 15 feet away and watch” and  “pick daughters up and put on top of ladder” there are a whole lot of other choices that could meet the daughters’ and the mother’s needs.  One obvious option that leaps to my mind would be to stand close to the ladder and allow daughters to climb while Mom is standing right there, ready to help should the daughters need it.  But, hands off if they don’t.  Or, even better (this was what I did, actually) climb the ladder, too!!  Kids, then Mom!  We had an awful lot of fun!  And, if I remember correctly, childhood is about fun.  Kids learn though fun and engaging activities.  There’s no manipulation!  It’s fun!  The girls could still have the empowering feeling of climbing the ladder and have fun with each other and with Mom!

And, the assertion that she brought her daughters to the park to “learn to do it themselves”:  Really?  That’s why you bring your kids to the park?  Not to have fun and be together?  Is there less value in that?  Granted, we are only getting a sliver of a look into the small window of this family’s life together and their interactions, but if I may interpolate, at the risk of being completely wrong, this sounds like a horrible drag!

First of all, let me state here and now and categorically that asking for help is not equivalent to manipulating others to do the hard work for you.  Asking for help is a powerful and important tool in achieving what you want in life.  There  are profound benefits to knowing what you want and being able to ask for help, if and when it is needed, to get it.  There are so many benefits to cultivating this skill.  Among them, you learn that the world is a kind place (which it is) and that people are eager to help.

When you, as a parent, create a culture of kindness and helpfulness in your home, the children want to participate in that.  Eventually, they will, if you do not pressure them, want to help you!  They will be delighted, in fact, to help you.  I know this is true.  I have seen it time and time again.  It’s human nature to want to fit in with our culture.  And, if parents create a culture of generosity, helpfulness, and kindness, children will eventually fall in when they are able to.

And, “being helpful” and “allowing your kids to do for themselves” are not mutually exclusive.  Just because you respond to a child who asks for help, that does not cripple them for life!  The opposite is true.  Especially, if you do it right.  And, by “right” I mean if your offers for help are refused, then get out of the way.  But, stay close.  You might be needed.

Now, that’s only the first two paragraphs of the post.   There’s more.  Still with me?

“They’re not here to be at the top of the ladder; they are here to learn to climb. If they can’t do it on their own, they will survive the disappointment. What’s more, they will have a goal and the incentive to work to achieve it.”

Sounds like a fun day at the park.  Oh boy.

“It is not my job — and it is certainly not yours — to prevent my children from feeling frustration, fear, or discomfort. If I do, I have robbed them of the opportunity to learn that those things are not the end of the world, and can be overcome or used to their advantage.”

Point taken, but this is a limiting belief.  We are talking, obviously, about very young children.  They will have plenty of natural opportunities to experience frustration, fear, and discomfort in their lives at times when Mom and/or Dad won’t be around to help.  It is inauthentic and perhaps even a manipulation in and of itself for a parent to withhold help when they are around to give it.  This practice can even be trust-eroding, an effect you do not want!  Parents help their kids.  That’s why kids have parents.  Parents are there to help their kids do stuff until the kids can do stuff for themselves.  There is no shortage of opportunities as kids grow to learn how to do things for themselves.

But, if a child is struggling with something and his mom or dad is sitting 15 feet away without offering to help or even refusing to help when asked, this child is going to learn a much different, darker lesson than the parent thinks the child is learning. 

Close your eyes for a minute and try to recall being a very small child struggling with something that you are not feeling equal to.  First, imagine that you get the help you are asking for.  How do you feel?  Pretty good, right?

Now, imagine you don’t get that help, even though you asked, and even though your parent is sitting close by and watching you struggle.  Really get into this.

How do you feel?

Well, first  you’re probably already feeling pretty frustrated because you were having enough trouble doing what you wanted to do that you asked for help.  So, you’re probably now feeling even more frustrated, right?  And, you may even be feeling frustrated enough that you  just might quit trying.  (Oops.)

Second, is it possible that you might feel horribly abandoned and angry at your parent for refusing to help?  And, how would you feel later when your parent asks you for help with something (“Hold the door for me?”)?  Would you be inclined to be helpful to one who deliberately withheld their help when they easily could have helped you?  And, are you really going to think, “I’m glad Mom didn’t help me climb that ladder today because I learned a valuable lesson about doing things for myself”?  NO, you’re not going to think that!   You may come to think that as an adult, but you’re a child now (in this case, probably a very little child), learning about the world and whom you can rely on.  You’re learning about generosity and kindness!  This particular lesson is not going to help you feel good about the world you are living in right now!

This is a very relationship-damaging practice to engage in.  When you assume the role of partner with your child, it is easier to make the right judgment calls about when to help and when to get out of her way and let her do it for herself.  This blanket withholding of parental assistance, I believe, teaches a bitter lesson that Mom cannot be trusted to help me when I need it.  (Oops.)

“I don’t want my daughters to learn that they can’t overcome obstacles without help. I don’t want them to learn that they can reach great heights without effort. I don’t want them to learn that they are entitled to the reward without having to push through whatever it is that’s holding them back and *earn* it.”

Here, I say this mom is overthinking things to the max.  Again, there will be plenty of times when Mom won’t be right there to help, and then kids will either do it themselves or ask for help or walk away.  A better way to help a child do for themselves is to model what it looks like to figure something out and do it.  I was very transparent about how I figured out how to bleed the oil line.  My son doesn’t need to know how to bleed an oil line; he just needs to know that he can find out and do it himself, if he has to.  My modeling that for him showed him that he can do it, too.

“I want my girls to know the exhilaration of overcoming fear and doubt and achieving a hard-won success.  I want them to believe in their own abilities and be confident and determined in their actions.  I want them to accept their limitations until they can figure out a way past them on their own significant power. I want them to feel capable of making their own decisions, developing their own skills, taking their own risks, and coping with their own feelings. I want them to climb that ladder without any help, however well-intentioned, from you.”

On a different point, there’s a whole lot of “I want…” statements here.  And, we would do well to remember this:  It’s not so much about what “I want.”  This is not your life; this is your child’s life.  You are here to help your child grow from infancy to adulthood.  And, yes, I get that this is this writer’s point.  But, the daughters she speaks of are not adults, yet.  They are very young, and there is a whole lot of parenting to do before they get to that point.

On a final note, when my son was very young, I knew a mom who had a son who was about 8 years of age.  On a beautiful cold day in the month of January, this boy was ice skating on a pond when the ice gave way and the boy fell into the pond and drowned.  He did not survive.

As horrific and sad as the whole experience was, his mother said, incredibly, that she was always grateful she had never wasted a moment of their time together being inauthentic.  Her focus was on joy and connection.  Not teaching lessons.  We learn lessons from living a full and rich life, whether alongside our parents or on our own.  Parents are for creating a safe environment where a child can learn about him- or herself, life, love, joy, compassion, frustration, failure in a safe, loving, supportive atmosphere.  This amazing mother said she never regretted a day they had together because their days were focused on and filled with joy.

I never forgot that.  It was the most valuable parenting lesson I had ever learned.  We have no idea how long we are here together.  Let us not waste our time together with inauthentic practices and “lessons” that separate us from the ones we love.

Here is a link to the original post:  Please Don’t Help My Child.


17 responses to “My Response to “Please Don’t Help My Kids”

  1. I disagree with your assessment. I think a mom knows when a kid really needs help and when they don’t. All 3 of my kids learned to climb by me not hovering around them and making them worried that they were doing something scary. They learned by trying over and over again, and if it looked like they really were going to fall, I’d help, but if it looked like they just needed the courage to try that last step, I waited and encouraged them instead. It always bothered me when my 1 year old would climb something difficult and then another adult, assuming I was being negligent, would hover next to her, because I could see her confidence immediately change – why is this adult standing there, am I doing something dangerous? And she would suddenly ask for help with something I had seen her do before.

    It’s disingenuous to compare a mother letting her child climb a jungle gym to wasting time together on teaching lessons by going for the gut and bringing up a tragedy that ended in death. There’s too much you are assuming from not enough information. And if someone hovers around my child at a park, I get up and I stop that person, not my child. She can do it. She doesn’t need a helmet and a padded playground.

    • Hi Blasphemous Homemaker! Thank you very much for reading and for commenting! I definitely value your voice and I appreciate your willingness to share your interesting opinion!!

      So, I wonder if you feel that your kids would not have learned to climb had you helped them out when they asked for your help (assuming they asked and you refused). I can’t think of one thing I helped my son accomplish when he was having trouble doing it and needed my help that he did not learn to do proficiently eventually. If you can provide an example of something like this, I’d love to hear it!

      And, I wonder if you think that helping and encouragement are mutually exclusive. Is it possible that a parent can be helpful AND encouraging at the same time?

      I do think it is extremely dangerous not to spot a small child (especially a 1-year-old) when they are climbing ANYTHING, whether it’s the bed or a jungle gym! Having worked in the medical profession for more than a decade, I saw many little kids come into the ER with severe playground injuries (from broken limbs to cracked skulls and spinal injuries). Spotting children is not a fear-based activity! It is common sense. Yes, accidents happen, but the child whose parent or caregiver is actively engaged with the child has a greater chance of being injury-free than the child whose parent or caregiver is observing from afar. That’s really just common sense.

      To your point in your last paragraph, I think you may have missed my point. I told that story only to illustrate that our time with our kids is very precious. I always held my exchanges with my son up to this gauge (and, in fact, all my exchanges with all my loved ones): If this were to be the last time I would see this person, how would I want to remember our last time together? I’m not saying that there is no room in my life with my son for the mundane, but we never know when this will be our last time together, and I strive (truly) for all of the times we have together to be as joyful as is reasonable at the time. I try to remember what is truly important. And, what’s truly important to me is that my son feel a true and deep connection with me. How that looks has changed over the course of his lifetime as he has grown and his needs have changed. But, the true and deep connection has remained the constant.

      I have always helped my son when asked and offered my help when it felt right to do so (yes, I agree with you, we do know when to offer and when to stay back), and my son has grown to be a capable, productive, confident, generous, helpful, kind, thoughtful young man who is proficient at all he does, takes on challenging tasks and meets them.

      Thank you again for reading and commenting! Wishing you and your family all the best!

      • My point was that I know the capabilities of my children. I don’t like the word “manipulation,” myself, but I do know when my child is taking a challenge that requires mama standing by, and when they are doing something that requires me giving them the time they need to figure it out. When they first start moving, I teach them how to turn around and go backwards to get down the stairs or off the couch. I walk beside them up and down the stairs. I do Montessori at home, so we practice Practical Life skills, such as pouring our own juice, buttoning our own coats, washing our own hands. Having intimate knowledge of their capabilities, I know when they are truly attempting something beyond their reach, and when their frustration is actually the familiar concentration they get when they are trying to practice something on their own until they get it. I know when I need to actually help and when calling out “you’re so close” is all they need.

        As for “common sense,” none of my children have ever been to an ER, ever. But I do know a parent who had to take their kid to the ER while they were helping them up on a jungle gym they weren’t ready for. The child immediately fell off the other side. “Common sense” is an arbitrary term. Helping a child do something they aren’t ready for isn’t automatically good parenting.

        I wrote a very long article on one of my other blogs called “What If There Are No Roses?” written to parents who believe that parenting is like a rose bush, thorny and best appreciated once you get to the other side. I know a mama whose ten month old died in her sleep, and another whose ten year old died during a freak accident. I know full well that each day is an important day to see the roses now, to feel close and connected to everyone in our lives. It is very hurtful for me, and I’m sure the mother who wrote the original article, to have it implied that allowing our children a challenge at a park means we’re not enjoying a full connection with our children. That mother was very defensive in her article, and based on the reactions to it, I think it’s quite justified.

      • You wrote:

        … but I do know when my child is taking a challenge that requires mama standing by, and when they are doing something that requires me giving them the time they need to figure it out.

        Sometimes, people ~ not just kids ~ ask for a loved one’s help because it helps them feel special and loved. (For more on this, read Gary Chapman’s interesting book, The 5 Love Languages.) This is not manipulation, but rather getting a beautiful need met in way that is most meaningful to that individual. When we choose to assume that our child or our partner has the best intention, we make space for much better outcomes.

        You wrote:

        Helping a child do something they aren’t ready for isn’t automatically good parenting.

        Absolutely agreed! Neither would I want to ignore a child’s request for help when asked. Better to say, “I’m happy to help you now! And, perhaps next time you’ll feel ready to do it yourself!”

        You wrote:

        It is very hurtful for me…to have it implied that allowing our children a challenge at a park means we’re not enjoying a full connection with our children.

        As I said to another commenter, I don’t know the writer of the original post and I don’t know you, and I would not make any presumptions or judgments about the quality of the connection any individual has with their child or, for that matter, the quality of their parenting based on what they write. How can I?! That is not for me to say, and as I have no basis to make such an assessment, how could I possibly know? My comments are solely to address the concepts and principles that are presented, which are published voluntarily by the writer for the examination of the reader. And, as such, the reader is entitled to examine and to comment (as you have done). There is absolutely no percentage in taking things personally to the degree that one would allow one’s self to feel hurt in this kind of a forum.

        Once again, I thank you very much for your thoughtful and thought-provoking comments, and I wish you and your family all the best!

        With kindest regards,

  2. Just today, I opened a jar by myself. I was the only one at the house. I had a Plan B in mind if it didn’t open.

    Had my husband or my grown son been here, I would have tried once and if it didn’t open, ask one of them. They wouldn’t mind helping me. They love me.

    I needed to put up a big curtain rod, after that. I got a crate and climbed up and did it. Had my husband been here, he could have done it without the crate.

    Being a partner, and having a partner, is one of the sweetest parts of life, and I am glad to have one, and to be one, and to see loving partnership dyads all around me. I wish everyone could have that.

    Thank you, Marji, for spreading sweetness in the world.

    • Sandra, I love the beautiful things we learn when we allow partnership into our lives, especially love-induced partnerships! Thanks for your comment!

  3. i couldn’t even finish reading this because the excerpts from the original post were giving me anxiety. for reasons that i won’t assume to be the same, my mom was prone to not helping and seeing the request for help as manipulation. i get it now. she was horribly abused as a child and saw asking for help as weakness because she learned, pretty early in life, that bad things happened and you had to toughen up and you couldn’t cry about it and god forbid you need help because no one was going to be available for that. no one.

    it also reminds me of a friend i had who would make her young daughter (at age three and four) stand up while eating dinner. she would also give her full glasses of milk. not sippy cups. not always plastic cups. glasses. full. this was like, setting her up to fail, and then of course she’d get upset when her daughter would, inevitably, fail and spill the milk or whine that her legs were tired and couldn’t she just sit down to eat?

    thank you for this response. you maintained a level-headedness i wouldn’t have been able to because i am very sensitive to this subtle form of emotional abuse, which is what it is. it teaches the same distrust we may have been taught was the cornerstone of parent/child relationships but it’s crucial that we, as parents, really think back to how it made us feel when our parents were cold or distant or too focused on us “learning” something. something they most likely hadn’t learned yet themselves. thanks for the reminder, too, to focus more on the joy of the experience above all else.

    • Thank you, Valeri, for reading and for commenting! It’s weird how easy it seems to be to forget what *our* own experience was as little kids. I always thought the design of parenting was great because the parent was able to have a greater perspective (that of an experienced adult’s and that of a frightened and confused child’s) and then make choices that honored BOTH those perspectives. I think that makes the difference between mindFUL parenting and knee-jerk parenting.

      Anyway, thank you again! I value your voice!!!

  4. I love this! And I had similar feelings when I read the original post. You brought up some points that I hadn’t thought of too, like the “I want” statements. I think that what bothered me the most is that it seemed like her kid had asked for help (since she just told them she wasn’t helping). Kids *want* to do things on their own when they’re ready – my son has said so many time, “DON’T help me!” and I honor that as well as I can too – if it’s a little dangerous I’m there to spot him.

    I’m definitely sharing your post.

  5. Interesting assessment. Still, it seems that you are assuming that the mother in the original post just doesn’t give a crap about her kids or, at best, is simply disconnected. It’s 2 extremes it seems and mother-shaming is in full effect! There is a happy medium of course between being neglectful and a hovering mother.

    I work HARD at smiling and saying “YOU CAN DO IT!” when I really, really, really, just want to help them or tell them not to do it at all. I have palpitations DAILY watching Ellis (my 3 year old) climb down my stairs to my basement. I HATE watching Alden (my 5 year old) play in the creek bed. And still… when I see the FIRE in their eyes… the wild POWER that they gain from enterprise.. from conquering something scary… I believe I’m doing them right. Of course, each and every mama knows what is best for her own children. 🙂

  6. Hi Jenn! Thank you SO much for reading and for commenting! I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it!!

    It’s interesting that you feel my post is mother-shaming and that I assume this mom doesn’t care about her child. In fact, that is not how I feel at all, and I apologize if that’s how it came across to you. The truth is that I have no idea whether this mother is loving or not, but if I had to make an assumption about her, it would be that she cares deeply about her child. So much so, in fact, that she sits on her hands because she feels it is the best thing to do. Because she has written a post and put it out into the world, it becomes fair game to be analyzed, accepted, lauded, dissected, or challenged. And, I am challenging it. But, again, I do not know this mother, so I wouldn’t presume to make any assumptions about her as a mother.

    I believe that in most cases we parents do the best we can with the tools and knowledge we have available to us at the time. (I exclude, obviously, abusers here.)

    The writer of the post that I responded to here stated some very definite positions about aiding and assisting children, and those positions are the focus of my challenge, not the mother herself. Again, I don’t know her, and her parenting and parenting choices are none of my business.

    I would also point out, as I did earlier, that helpfulness and encouragement are not mutually exclusive. One can stand by supportively, be encouraging, and be close by. It is all in the attitude and demeanor we use with our kids, who are very adept at reading us!

    I would also add that when our kids are in a potentially dangerous situation, I think being actively engaged with the child is better than observing from afar. Many mothers (and that would include yours truly) stay actively engaged with their very small children during explorations of, say, a creek bed (to use your example) or climbing in a precarious situation, not in an outwardly protective way that says, “I’m frightened you’ll get hurt and I don’t think you can do it,” but in a supportive way that allows a child to explore and have Mom close at hand if she is needed.

    (No shame, no blame here. You said something, and I am responding to it. I don’t know you, either, and I am not questioning you or your parenting choices, just commenting on something you said. I would urge you not to take what I say personally!)

    As you beautifully pointed out, between the two polar opposites there are other options that meet everyone’s needs.

    Thanks again for your very thoughtful comments!

    With kindest and warmest regards,

  7. I enjoyed reading the comments as much as I enjoyed your response to the original blog. Since I am no longer raising children, I can’t help framing this points of view against our current cultural climate. quesquesquestion

    • Hi Emma! Thanks very much for reading! I have been enjoying all the comments, too! They are all very thoughtful and thought provoking.

      I find it very interesting that you are re-framing the discussion around cultural and climate questions, especially in light of how crucial these issues are these days. I’d love to hear more about that, if you’re interested.

      But, I really do appreciate your reading and taking the time to comment! That does my heart a world of good, and I am very grateful.

      With warmest and kindest regards,

  8. So many great points in your article! I loved it. Like Susan, I was especially struck by the “I want…” statements. You nailed that one. Very thought provoking.

    And, like Sandra, I feel so grateful for help from the people I love. And so happy to help them right back.

    Thank you!

    • Thank you very much, Temple, for reading and for your kind and enthusiastic comments! I very much appreciate your taking the time to write!

      Wishing you all the best,

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