As parents, we are master problem-solvers. Babies cry — we hold them. Children fall — we bandage them. They’re hungry — we feed them. Bored — we hand them entertainment. Colic or reflux, well, somehow we get through that too.
Oftentimes, fixing our kids’ problems becomes muscle memory. The universal mom-bounce, for example. It’s a rhythmic sway we do from side to side while up and down with a child on our hip. It’s a bit magical in terms of its helpfulness.
And many of us pride ourselves in our problem-solving skills. We are, after all, always helpful — except when we’re not. There are moments when even the most seasoned, most well-intentioned mom discovers … she is helpless. Or at least she feels that way.
There comes a point when your child asks you to help him or her with a certain homework question, and you’re not 100 percent sure of the answer. Of course, you don’t admit this. Instead, you study the question, talk it out, and wait for that light-bulb moment from a class you took more than two decades ago.
Homework became a journey of self-discovery for me the day my son brought home math word problems beginning with: “If Train A leaves the station at 4 p.m., traveling at 60 mph … ” My challenge was to help him predict when Train B meets up with Train C before Train A arrives at another destination. After frustration caused me to crave a Train D to take me away from it all, I helped him figure out the answers. But the following day when he announced that his teacher had marked his answers incorrect, I realized I was not only unhelpful, I was the antithesis of helpful. Mis-helpful. There should be such a word.
There’s just nothing fun about watching your child experience an illness. However, we are helpful in that we mastered the art of scheduling doctor appointments, using the thermometer, administering Tylenol, stocking up on Pedialyte, snuggling with our sick children, and so on.
But some of us have experienced that moment of complete and utter helplessness as our child continually vomits into a bowl, the only thing we can do is hold their hair, gently rub their back, and keep their aim straight. And even though we disinfectant the room, the child’s residual moaning along with the carpet stain remind us that we can’t always take the pain away.
No matter the sport, you want your child to enjoy it, to excel at it, to feel a sense of accomplishment. And so it can hurt when you see a coach “correct” your son or daughter in a way that you probably wouldn’t.
Once during a travel baseball game, my son (the catcher) missed the ball and chased after it while the player slid into home plate and won the game. After hearing the coach’s less-than-loving feedback, feeling the disappointment in the stands and anticipating a traumatized son, I was compelled to help, to put my positive parent stamp on the entire situation.
“Good try, son!” I shouted for the world to hear. Minutes later, I reminded him of his triumphant moments at other games and told him I’ll talk to the coach about not being so hard on him.
“Mom, please don’t talk to my coach — that’s embarrassing!”
“But I’m trying to help you feel better!” I told him. “I don’t want you to feel frustrated or discouraged … ”
“That doesn’t help,” he said. “I’m fine, and that’s part of the game. I just have to practice more.”
A powerful awareness hit me hard: My “helping” would have helped me feel better instead of him.
Chances are, if you’ve been to a lot of playdates or playgrounds with young children you’ve heard the saying, “Those kids don’t want to play with me.” And if it’s your child saying it with tears in her eyes, your heart hurts.
Rejection doesn’t get any easier as they become older. It hurts when you learn that your child was ignored at recess or wasn’t invited to a friend’s birthday party. It stabs even more when you see that your child is horribly hurt by it. But you can’t force the birthday girl to invite your daughter — and even if you could, would you want to?
With a son in high school, I’m hoping he won’t experience a girl breaking his heart, but I know that he just might. Somehow the break-up cliché, “It’s her loss” doesn’t seem helpful to console him with — not even a little bit.
And then there’s such a thing as over-helping. You see it all the time in Helicopter Parents who are so focused on mitigating their children’s problems that they actually remove normal, healthy adverse experiences. They do almost everything for their child so he or she doesn’t have to face consequences, experience pain, or hear negative feedback. This then prevents their child from learning coping skills and instead, makes him or her completely dependent on the parents. This type of helping is often no help at all.
Helping Children Help Themselves
As I watch my sons continually experience life’s lessons, a part of me wants to shield them from the hurtful ones. I want to throw on my mom super cape and protect them from disappointment, sadness, frustration, pain, and failure. And when I can’t, it’s easy to feel helpless.
But I’m learning that it’s those times when I can actually be the most helpful — and that is by teaching my children how to help themselves. Sometimes it involves letting them fall, because if they never fall, they’ll never learn how to get back up. If we always fix their problems, when and how will they learn to fix their own?
There’s no instant fix-it switch when they go off to college, giving them mastery of responsibility, accountability, and self-reliance. It’s a long developmental journey — which starts in early childhood — and it’s one in which we as parents can guide them along the way. This way, instead of owning or controlling our children’s success, we give them the experiences and skills to create their own.
“The greatest gifts you can give your children are the roots of responsibility and the wings of independence.” – Denis WaitleyMore On