Why “Doing Nothing” is the Hardest Job of Parenting

Surprise. Parenting is hard. Okay that’s not a surprise. The surprise is that one of the hardest parts of parenting is doing nothing. Yes. Really. Sitting on your hands and resisting the temptation to fix problems for our kids can be one of the most difficult exercises in parenting. Self control. It’s ironic that we expect our kids to practice impulse control throughout their lives but we don’t realize how much we need that same lesson.

The art of parenting by "doing nothing."

My kids are 14, 19 and 20 and it has been a lifetime since I stood outside their bedroom doors at 2 am listening to them cry in their cribs and praying they will JUST FALL ASLEEP ALREADY! However, I remember that feeling in the pit of my stomach like it was just a few minutes ago. What I didn’t know then as I tiptoed outside the door, half asleep, exhausted, frustrated and sometimes even just lying down on the floor outside their room while fading in and out of sleep, I was practicing an extremely necessary skill. I was learning there are times when the short-term effect of fixing a problem for my children would hurt them in the long run.

Yes, I could have easily picked up my curly-haired blue-eyed munchkin and rocked him to sleep within minutes. I could have gently done the arms to crib transfer and tiptoe back to my warm comfortable bed, which was calling my name. It would have fixed my immediate problem.  We all remember Maverick had the “need for speed” in Top Gun but nothing is more powerful than the “need for sleep” in those early days of parenting.

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Fortunately, I was able to control myself and think of the long-term goal even in those moments when the siren call of my down comforter felt so strong. If I helped him tonight and then the next night, he would never have the opportunity to learn to soothe himself back to sleep.  Those nights, which felt endless, eventually ended, and each of my three became good sleepers – most of the time.

That lesson follows through to present day. Whenever my children have an issue, which seems so easy to fix from where I stand, I instinctively want to quickly make things better for them. I imagine many years from now still feeling the same way. When you see your child stumble, our genetic instincts kick in and we want to reach out and catch them. Much of the time, we are hurting them in the long run. We are sending the message, “only I can fix this”, “you aren’t capable of surviving without my help” and most damaging, ” I don’t have faith in your own abilities.”

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While I was fairly successful with the sleep issue, I still made plenty of other mistakes along the way that other parents can relate to. I remember one of my children coming home everyday complaining about a specific teacher at school. Of course, what I heard was, “Please fix this for me.”  I went into Mama Mountain Lion mode and sent off an email to the teacher expressing my concern. Imagine my surprise when my daring 12-year-old son got in the car after school the next day and was absolutely furious with me for interfering. I was confused. I thought I was helping him. Instead I made things worse for him with the teacher.

After discussing the issue with him, I had a breakthrough in my relationship with him. I will always be thankful to that teacher for inadvertently allowing me to learn a life-changing lesson. He needed me to listen to his frustration and do something very important for him. NOTHING! Sometimes all children want is for us to listen.

Yes, that sounds so obvious as I write it. I can be so blinded by my mom goggles at times that I forget that important point. I am a fixer. I want to make everything better. If I have the ability to solve a problem, darn it, of course I want to go into high gear and get it done. Luckily, I am usually able to take a breath, practice self-control and think about the long-term consequences.

For many of you reading this, as you prepare to send your children off to college in just a few weeks, this may resonate with you.  As you help your freshman unpack her belongings, witness his first interaction with his roommate or help her find the nearest food hall, instinctively you will want to help your child navigate these new situations.

The best help you can give is no help at all. We will always be their safety net in case of major issues. However, allowing our kids to slip and fall a little and learn to figure out the solution on their own is often the best parenting we can do.

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If we are lucky, the consequences of their mistakes will be minor – occasional sorority late fees for not paying dues on time, a lowered grade for a paper turned in late or a ruined load of laundry.

I am so proud of my children when I witness their successes but I have a dirty little mom secret too. When I see them make a mistake, take ownership of their responsibility in the error and have a non-life changing yet uncomfortable consequence, I’m just a teeny tiny bit happy for them.

I flashback to that sleep deprived screaming toddler who finally grabs her pink blankie, sucks her bottom lip and soothes herself to sleep and I know that by standing outside the door and not going in, I have done my best parenting of the day.


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Renee SalemRenee is the mother of two college-aged children and one entering high school. Renee earned a degree in Finance at the University of Florida before marrying at age 25 and jumping right into being a wife and mother. Now amicably divorced from the father of her children, she has begun an incredible adventure as a newly single woman given a second chance to live out her dreams. As she begins a new chapter of life, she is still not sure if waking up every morning as a resident of New York City is real life or a very long dream she has been having for quite some time.

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