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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!


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