When my kids were small overparenting was all the rage. Parents competed with stories of out doing themselves to help their children. While our own parents might have made us a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, we went one better. We made the (organic) sandwich, cut off the crusts, sliced it into perfect triangles, put it on the special plate with the matching sippy cup and served it in front of favored cartoons. If our kids balked we even ate the sandwich for them.
But at some point the pendulum swung in parenting styles and very quickly I went from feeling bad about what I was not doing for my kids to feeling bad about what I was doing for my kids.
I was doing alright with this parenting change except for one thing. Sure, I understand when we do things for our kids that they can do for themselves we disable their independence. And when we step in when we should step back we are implying that we don’t trust their capabilities to do for themselves.
Jess Lahey, educator and author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed put forth the notion that failure is a gift (and an unparalleled learning experience) in childhood and I pushed back saying, “Shouldn’t I help my kids as I would do for others I love, like my husband?” She so correctly pointed out that I was not raising my husband.
But here is where I come a little undone. Sometimes doing things for our kids, even things they can do for themselves is a way to both show them love and care and to teach them how to do the same for others. Sometimes doing things for our kids is modeling the type of loving, caring, kind people we hope they will one day become.
We are not raising a generation of independent kids, we are not independent ourselves. All of us live in webs of interdependence, reliant on the love and caring of those around us. We need to teach them how to be interdependent and one of the ways to do that is to show care by doing for others.
I recently read a New York Times “Motherlode” piece that I loved. In it a college student calls her mother because she has mononucleosis and is terribly sick. Eilene Zimmerman, the wonderful mother/writer is defensive for jumping on a plane to fly to her sick freshman, taking pains to point out how sick and how young her daughter is. She explains to her readers, “I know what you’re going to say. Our parents didn’t fly out to save us when we got sick at college.”
The issues of the line between parenting and overparenting, which has long been on my mind, came into focus when I read her words. Do our kids require a 102 fever for it to be alright for them to need us? Do they need to be helpless for us to be helpful? Sometimes as Zimmerman so clearly points out it feels so wonderful to care for your child, even if that child is every bit a teenager or an adult. And sometimes the most independent daughter is glad to find her supportive parents behind her when she needs them.
If parents need to apologize for helping their kids, particularly their kids brought down by illness, then perhaps the parenting pendulum has swung too far.
Even with decades of motherhood behind me, the line between helping and harming often seems arbitrary, a decision of the moment that I can, at most times, argue both ways. In fact as my kids grow older, and the evidence of their independence is even clearer, the arguments for not helping seem even less compelling. Often when I help them they don’t act helpless, but rather grateful.
Sometimes when we help our kids we may be damaging their independence but just as often when we help them do something we:
1. Help them.
Teens and young adults are often overscheduled and overworked. The hectic years of high school, college and first jobs can be more time-consuming than expected. By helping our kids, we are doing just that, taking something off their overflowing plate and making things just a touch easier.
2. Teach them.
Sure we can tell our kids to figure something out, knowing that finding your way is often a learning experience. Or we can show them how to do something. The message may be that parents still have knowledge and experience to share even as our kids grow into adults themselves.
3. Model love and caring.
If we want our kids to grow up to be caring adults, spouses who take care of their better half, siblings who are there when needed or friends who can be called upon, we need to both model this behavior and aim some of it at our offspring. When we step in and help them we are showing them how we help those we love.
So this leave me wondering…
When is helping our kids not ruining their independence but rather showing them we care?
When is helping them not saying, I don’t trust you to do it but instead, I love you and want to help?
I offer the question not the answer.