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February 2018
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September 2018

Parenting's Fine Line Between Help and Hinderance

When Parents Should Help
So, I posted this adorable pic of my daughter trying diligently to blow up an air raft about three times the size of her little 5-year-old body. Days later, after looking at the pic several times, I was inspired to write about this issue. I couldn’t help but speculate that folks out there probably thought, “Geez, Mom, help the girl out!”  Well I did. I did help her out. But I waited for her to ask for my help. See, when it comes to giving my kids help - I don’t jump in. I don’t take over, I don’t give them the luxury of automatically having my help, or give them the impression they cannot turn it down. I do give them practice in using the courage to ask for help from others and the opportunity to push through hard things, which gives them a chance to be proud of themselves for creating their own solution to a problem. When we don’t allow our kids space to do hard things - without swooping in to “help” them (or could be read: “save them”) - we cheat them of personal growth experiences, and can also create some really funky ideas about perseverance and capability.

Creating an “EASY” mindset

As we see our kids begin to struggle with something, and we jump in to do it for them or make it easier, we inadvertently create the mindset that things should be easy. It has become more and more common for kids these days to believe that the things they do, or have to do, should be easy - or they simply don’t want to do them. Well, that really stinks….because some of the greatest joys we have in life come from persevering through our most challenging and difficult accomplishments. This leads us to the next point.

Cheating kids of the “I can do it” mindset and “I did it” victories

As mentioned above, when we do things for our kids that they could have potentially done themselves, it cheats them from the sense of pride that comes with accomplishing hard things.  Worse, the need to struggle with a task may cause children to quit trying.  We call this “learned helplessness.” Feeling capable is an essential piece of our self-esteem. We can only feel capable if given enough space and opportunity to figure things out for ourselves.   


We want our kids to be somewhat independent, right?!? I know this part is hard because as they grow and can do things on their own we look on with that stinging feeling like they don’t need us anymore. But this simply isn’t true.  Our kids will always need us for something, just maybe not that thing anymore. As they grow they will still need our help but what they need it for will evolve. However, jumping in and continuing to “help” when our kids could otherwise handle a situation on their own will hinder their desire to put forth the effort and to achieve independence.

Learning to fail

Did you know it’s actually ok if things don’t turn out the way your kids want? Did you know that’s how they learn to be flexible with their expectations, manage disappointment, and again part of what actually builds self-esteem? Say what??? Build self-esteem??? Yep. It’s true. When kids experience failure – the feeling of not being good at something, not get something right, etc. - and then also see that they are still accepted and acceptable by their people (family, friends, teachers and such), it builds their sense of self-worth, confidence in their relationships and sense of belonging.  The positive aftermath of failure creates the “come as you are” unconditional acceptance we crave from our relationships.

Failing and struggling also builds confidence to try again. This is another aspect of perseverance. When we can feel confident that we can try lots of different things to figure out solutions to our problems, including asking for help, our self-esteem gets a serious boost.

Asking for help

Asking for help is HAAAAAAAAARD for a lot of people. As a parent, I want my kids to learn to recognize when they need help and have the guts to ask for it. This is a life skill. We can’t make it very far if we aren’t in good practice of asking others for help when we need it. On the other hand, I’m also aware of my kids trying to manipulate me for help when they don’t really need it. This one is a dance. Not asking for help ever is not ok. Just like overstepping boundaries and asking for help all the time, when they are clearly capable to handle the task, is not ok. But how will they know the difference if we, as parents, aren’t teaching those boundaries?

***Disclaimer. Of course I don’t make my kids ask me for help if there is an emergency, someone is going to get hurt, or quick action is needed. That’s crazy, people. I’m talking about the everyday mundane kinds of things, like fixing their own snack or cleaning their bedrooms.  Got it?  Good.

Taking over the ownership of the problem

When we take the wheel for our kids, whether big kids or small kids, we are also taking over the ownership of the problem. When we give kids time to figure things out for themselves, and they come to us and ask us for help, they continue to hold investment that the problem is still theirs.  They stay in a mindset that they are now in partnership with us when they seek our help and are invested in finding a solution. That’s a big difference from an “I give up” mentality.

Limiting the creative process

The last point to make falls in the zone of creativity and imagination. When we don’t offer the freedom for kids to think through their problems and create their own, and possibly innovative, solution we don’t allow them to grow. They need these opportunities to grow their critical thinking skills, which uses their imaginations as well as all kinds of executive functioning skills, like judgement, visual imagery (picturing outcomes), planning, emotional control, etc. We can’t develop these areas if we don’t allow the opportunities for them to be challenged. Granted they may take, what you would consider, a needlessly long way around to the solution, but again that’s ok, too.  When you truly let them be, without interjecting ways to hurry the process, you'll be surprised with what they can come up with!

Some tips on how to decide the right time and ways to help your kids when they need it.

  1. Wait for them to ask you (as long as it isn’t an urgent predicament or a safety issue).
  2. When you see them struggling, let them know you are there to help if they need it.
  3. Only offer as much help as they need (i.e.: Don’t take over!)
  4. Allow them to stay involved in the process, if possible, so they can still have ownership of the accomplishment when it is resolved.
  5. Cheer them on! Show your kids that you see them doing hard things and that you believe in them. Tell them how proud you are of them when they push through and persevere regardless of the outcome.

So let me wrap up by telling you how the little girl against the great big raft story ended. This little peanut of mine was just sure she could blow this raft up. She tried and tried and tried. And I took pictures. LOL! Finally, she looked at me out of breath and said, “Hey Mom, can you help me?”  I said, “Of course.” She informed me I would blow some and then she would blow some. I accepted this agreement. As I blew and my giant grown up breathes were able to fill and expand the raft with each one, she squealed in delight. I would take a break, and she would quickly grab it back and say “Ok, it’s my turn.” She would again blow and blow, with little progress, but I used every bit of encouragement as she tried and tried. This back and forth lasted until we were done. She was BEAMING because SHE did it and WE did it together!

Summer Busy vs. Summer Structure

As the school year is quickly coming to a close, and we are looking forward to all the fun and excitement that summer brings, there is one thing that begins to lurk inside the parental mind – “What am I going to DO with these KIDS?!?!??”

This is the time of year that I find conversations with my clients focusing on summer, and, in particular, a need to keep their kids “busy” as a way to keep them occupied and (hopefully!) out of trouble. However, what I would prefer they (and you, dear parent!) would focus on is “structure” versus simply “staying busy.” 

These concepts are easily confused. We often think “OMG!!! They’ll be out of school. We’ll need to keep them busy!” But, what will really offer more to your kids - and to you, as well! - is to choose wisely which activities you engage your children and families in and to keep those summer days structured and routine.

By this I mean choosing which activities are meaningful to your kids, offering plenty of down time and free play, while also utilizing routine on a daily basis.

I see many parents who feel a need to “fill up” their kids’ time. They pull out the local Family Magazine and comb the ads for summer camps and summertime special classes.  They plan on lots of play dates, matinee movies (because who doesn’t love summer discounts!), art class at the Family Museum on Tuesdays, Lego League at the library, time with grandparents, and of course we have baseball/soccer/basketball practice and games, swimming lessons, gymnastics, volunteering at the food pantry and let’s not forget practicing our reading and math skills! Meanwhile they will eat, sleep, do chores on their downtime, and finally have a chance to communicate with family members and friends when they have a free moment – which would be on the phone, in the car, on the way to their next scheduled event.

But how many of you have asked your kids what THEY want to do over the summer?  Actually, how many of you parents have asked yourselves that same question?  Instead of seeing summer as an annoying space that has to be filled, try seeing the longer days of summer freedom as an opportunity.  An opportunity for your Soccer Star athlete to hone in on her skills, or your Rocker son to have extra practice on his guitar.  Perhaps all your kids really want to do is swim.  Or maybe they’d like to go see some new (or old) sites.  And maybe you, as the parent, want to prioritize relationships, learning, responsibilities and fun.  The first stage of Summertime Planning is to ask yourselves and your kids to make a list of what they would like to accomplish over summer break.

Once the lists have been compiled, you (as the parent!) can then decide which activities would best fit the priorities that you want to honor for your family, while keeping one critically important thing in mind – STRUCTURE. Instead of simply filling days with “something to do,” make deliberate choices that not only accomplish your family’s goals, but also work within a structured and consistent daily routine. Maybe for your family a priority is have dinner together every (or most) nights. Perhaps the kids need free-time for play with friends or alone after lunch until it’s time for family activities. Or maybe it’s math and reading for an hour after breakfast. When you make structure and routine the first priority, you can more easily decipher which activities will or won’t work for you as a family, and it will make you more reluctant to add in activities that interfere with your overall routine. Ultimately, using structure and goals would give more pause about what we sign our kids and family up for, because we realize what we would be giving up in order to participate.

It’s tempting to feel like we need to fill their time. And, of course, if you work like I do, day camps/day care is not optional, but are also usually structured around a daily routine.  However, if you have more freedom during the summer to dictate how your child will spend their time, it is important to stay focused on providing structure over busy-ness. Creating a predictable schedule of events throughout the day will help kids remember what is expected of them, stay relaxed and limit behavior issues. Structure and routine create calmer and more focused kids, while also creating calmer and more relaxed parents.

Keeping kids “busy” might seem like an easy way to get through summer.  But in all of that “busyness,” children are being robbed of the ability to have time to themselves.  Take away that “busyness,” and you give your child the independence to control their own agendas and activities, which will help them develop their imagination and creativity, become self-starters by practicing and initiating their own play, and also foster more opportunity for them to connect and build relationships and social skills with siblings, neighbors, and friends through unorganized interactions. There is real value to all of these things that keeping kids busy with an endless list of organized activity would not necessarily offer.

Creating routines and structure in your days is far more valuable than signing them up for a million activities. Teaching them to play on their own, be resourceful with their time, and be comfortable with being bored are life skills that we all need to practice. And by limiting the “busy” it also helps limit the “crazy” in your life too. After all, I’ve never heard anyone exclaim that the best part of their summer was running the kids all over town!