By Dean Beckloff, Ph.D. | Contributor
Out of deep devotion, parents can go askew in their desire to be there for their children and to assist them toward success in life. On the other hand, some are completely hands-off. The balance is so very hard to achieve – but achieve it we must if we are going to raise healthy, independent kids who become healthy, independent adults.
I’ve met a ton of amazing and inspiring parents in my 35+ years of working with families. The lengths that parents can go and their devotion to their children is amazing, deep and awe-inspiring. Parents will spare no expense and give it all when it comes to their children. Jumping in front of a bus? You bet! It is perhaps a dedication and love that is simply just there. And most parents cannot get away from it. I know it too — I ’ve experienced that devotion and deep love that knows no bounds. I just recently spent a wonderful long weekend with my daughter, her husband and their three children. After they left, the ache within was substantial.
But because of that deep devotion, some make the severe mistake of doing too much for their kids. There’s an old parenting rule of thumb that perhaps gives us our best guide: don’t do for children what they can do for themselves. This rule can help us achieve the goal of creating a healthy environment.
We’ve all heard of the helicopter parent, hovering too close for comfort over the child and creating many distortions in the child over time. Another type that we are hearing about these days is called the lawnmower parent — a parent who clears all obstacles from their children’s path, so that they never have to deal with any problems by themselves. Instead of hovering, lawnmower parents clear a path for their child before they even take a step, pre-empting possible problems and mowing down obstacles in their child’s way.
Is that a problem? What parent hasn’t done that? What parent hasn’t thought of possible consequences of their teens’ decision making, from driving to being out too late? Parties that the teen is attending, the perils of teenage drinking, falling in with the wrong crowd, getting up late for school, getting assignments done… We’ve all done these kinds of things – trying to understand the teen’s potential consequences, and then at the very least – communicating that to our teen. Here’s the difference – guiding our teen is one thing, going down the treacherous path of doing it for them, is another.
Are you feeling frustrated in your parenting of your child because you feel you are doing all the work? Maybe you are. Maybe you are, indeed, trying to make it all too good for the child. Maybe, just maybe, the frustration you feel is there because you are simply doing too much. Don’t do for children what they can do for themselves. It’s tricky, especially when there are learning disabilities, attention deficit issues and other challenges your teen may face. But the problem comes when good and normal assistance and guidance becomes doing it for the teen. Don’t. It simply will not help. And they are going to get to college not knowing a thing about self-advocacy.
Parenthood is a job of repeatedly handing over responsibility to the child. It’s about emancipating our teen. Getting their own milk even if they spill it. Then they get to learn how to clean it up. That principal is paramount if we are going to rear teens who can take care of the spilled milk. What if they forget their most important paper at home? What can they do besides call Mom or Dad? If they are worried about talking to a teacher, should you do it for them? If they are too shy about asking for what they want in a restaurant, should you order for them? Should you be helping your teen by getting him or her together with friends and taking care of those arrangements? Are you afraid they’ll never do it themselves? If your child is tardy, should you go in with them to help them avoid the embarrassment of their tardiness? When your teen is having social problems, should you get involved and call the other parents?
Over and over we are confronted with these decisions as parents. Don’t do for children what they can do for themselves. They may not be as proficient as you and as elegant as you in dealing with these typical areas, but the only way to learn is to somehow do it yourself. And grow in proficiency. To learn how to dust yourself off, get back up and keep going. Perhaps, what the teen may most need is your behind-the-scenes encouragement and affirmation as well as your confidence in them to be able to solve the problem. That is something you can always give. Taking care of the problem for them? This is very likely – not – the thing to do.
Let the child do it. If they can get the milk, then they need to get it. Even if that means they decide not to get it. Respect their decision making, even if it’s wrong. If your son or daughter can do it, don’t step in.
It’s always okay to give guidance. To suggest. To help your teen think it through. If they don’t want it, let it be. But your kind and considerate help in reflecting with the teen can be helpful.
It’s always okay to encourage, affirm and give your teen your confidence.They always need that, even when they are 42 years old. They want to know that you are pleased with them.
Really think hard and get some help from a trusted friend when a situation arises that you are tempted to step in. Remember, if you step in, you are teaching your child that they are incapable, unable and are dependent on others to make it in life. They will go in to life “disabled” in the deepest sense of the word. They will be hobbled in their ability to face challenges. So seek input from others before jumping in.
School age children: Don’t order for them at restaurants; don’t speak for them in situations they are uncomfortable in; don’t do all the arrangements for play dates. Get the child involved and encourage independence. Set the child up for success ahead of time by practicing and encouraging.
Teens: Insist that they do all communicating themselves first, in situations like interfacing with teachers about a grade, a need for making up a quiz, getting work when they are going to be absent, etc. Knowing your teen has weak areas doesn’t excuse them from making the first attempt. You can then come alongside to help if needed.
Don’t do for children what they can do for themselves. Let that little rule of thumb be singularly present from birth through the teen years. Then you can see them launch successfully, as you continue the most and deepest support needed – your love and affirmation of the people they are.
Editor’s Note: Dr. Dean Beckloff is a pediatric therapist, school counselor and trainer, who specializes in treatment for children and families navigating divorce or other life challenges. He is the founder of the Beckloff Behavioral Center in Dallas. If you wish to contact Dr. Beckloff with questions, comments or for a consultation, he can be reached at www.DrBeckloff.com or 972.250.1700.