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:
“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.