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Bye, Bye Helicopter Mom — I’m Choosing to Be a “Scaffold Parent”

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There’s something about 7-year-olds. Something that makes them seem like babies and big kids at the same time. At least that’s how I feel about mine. One minute I think, “He was just born yesterday, I can’t expect too much of him!” and the next, “But really, shouldn’t he be able to comb his own hair already?!?!”

Yes. He should be able to comb his own hair. He should be able to do a lot of things on his own. He’s been telling me this, I’ve been wondering why he doesn’t, and this summer we’ve decided to do something about it. This summer, I’m letting go of my baby and teaching him to be a big kid — one who knows his neighborhood, who can take care of himself alone in our apartment for an hour, and who contributes to our household maintenance.

I know he’s ready to prove to himself and to me that he’s capable of taking on more responsibility, but I’ve been less sure that I’m ready. To be honest, part of the problem is simply that it’s easier for me to do everything than take the time to teach him to do things on his own. Another part is my fear of being judged by people who would suggest that I was being irresponsible, neglectful, or unloving for not holding his hand forever.

But as I’ve grown into motherhood and survived the breast vs. bottle battle, the skirmishes over co-sleeping, and the drama over not sending my kids to pre-school, I feel that as long as I do my research, I can be confident that my parenting decisions are truly what is best for me and my family.

And my research is telling me to go for it. Now is the time to a lay a foundation of trust and competence so that by the time he gets to college, he can confidently fight his own battles.

In prepping for the task of teaching him his way around the neighborhood, I spoke with Holly Schiffrin, a psychology professor at Mary Washington College, who talked me through some of the issues of helping my child feel safe while also instilling in him a healthy awareness of the world around him.

Holly explained that kids don’t always understand why we are hesitant to give them more independence, so it’s important to make them mindful of potential dangers without scaring them. For example, parents can say: “It’s not that I don’t trust you, but there are other people in the world that do mean things.”

But of course we can’t keep our kids close forever. The time comes when they need to learn to “difficult” skills that are so easy for us, we don’t even think twice about them — like washing dishes or making a PB&J sandwich.

For many moms, it’s tough to let go of things we have down pat (like riding a bike) in order to let our kids give it their own try. One mom I talked to said she feels like she’s “micro-managing” every move her kids make on long bike rides.

But Schiffrin had a different take: she calls it “scaffolding,” and it gives parents a chance to meet kids in their optimal learning zone.

Much like a physical scaffold, which temporarily supports a structure until it is sound enough to stand on its own, “scaffolding” is a way to provide strength and guidance until a child is familiar enough with a situation to handle it himself.

At first, you tell your child exactly where to stop when he’s riding his bike, where to make turns, and to look out for other people or obstacles. As time goes on, you gradually scale back your coaching until it’s internalized and he can do it without being reminded.

I kept this approach in mind when I started lengthening my son’s (metaphorical) leash. But before we really began, I tested his knowledge to figure out where we should even start. How well did he know the street names? Did he know how to get from our place to the park?

A pop-quiz revealed that he knew the streets better than I thought and could tell me the correct lefts and rights to all our favorite haunts. He backed it up when we went out for a practical test and he confidently led us from the library to our apartment.

I was somewhat chagrined to find out how short I had sold him. I assumed he wasn’t paying attention, when really he just needed the opportunity to show his stuff.

I made a mental note to back the helicopter up a bit so that he could find his own way without being blown over.

After that, I started noticing other ways that I could give him just a little more space, which was surprisingly satisfying for both of us.

When I mentally made the switch from seeing him as a kid who’s just learning, to being a responsible kid who knows what’s up, it empowered him to take charge of situations — like managing who gets to hold the doors and push the elevator buttons as we enter and exit our building, and making sure his younger brother knows the rules of the sidewalks as he learns to ride his own bike.

Giving my son more independence also showed me that sometimes I’m the one who has something to learn.

This was all too apparent when we went out for our first bike ride around the park — 5 miles total, with him on his bike and me and my other two kids on another. It was, in a word, frustrating. He rode so slowly! He needed so many breaks! I thought I had found a line that we weren’t ready to cross: he just wasn’t quite capable of making this trek.

But then, when we were nearly home, I noticed his back tire looked a little low. I checked it and sure enough, it was nearly flat. The front one, too. The struggles he had stemmed not from his limits, but from my mistakes. It was my job to make sure his bike was ready to ride, and I’d neglected it.

Still, somehow, we’d made it through. He’d persisted, I’d encouraged, we trusted and forgave each other — and we both grew a little.

Photo credit: Lizzie Heiselt

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