Pediatrician and Mom: Hardest Part of Parenting is Resisting the Rescue

There is a place of southwest Colorado that has been our family’s place of respite since 1978. Many life lessons have been learned there by my parents, my sisters, myself, and now, my children. 

Back in 1990, when I was learning to drive a standard transmission, I was in that Colorado town when I pulled a friend’s Jeep into the gas station. I popped the clutch right as I pulled in, and the Jeep lurched forward loudly and came within an inch of hitting the old-time gas pump, eliciting a reaction from my dad and total panic in me. 

I have to remind myself not to rescue my teens, they need to learn to fix things themselves. (Twenty20 @tosawill)

My dad made me get back into the driver’s seat

We filled the Jeep with gas and I went to the passenger side to get in, but my dad was already there, refusing to take over the driving and calmly sipping his coffee in the passenger seat. Sixteen-year-old me was furious when I realized he was forcing me to get back into the driver’s seat and try again. 

When my son was about nine years old, we once again found ourselves in this small Colorado town. Our family was eating outside at the town bakery, enjoying relief from the Texas summer heat. The kids had wandered off, and my son had scaled a rocky hilltop and was stuck. My other child and his cousin came running up to the bakery to ask for help. “He got up there but he can’t get down! You have to come help him!” 

I jumped up from my seat at the bakery table to go help my son (and interestingly, I could tell my dad wanted to go help his grandson as well, after forcing me to get back in the driver’s seat of the Jeep years before). But my husband laughed, took a sip of his own coffee and stayed in his seat. “Tell him not to climb something he can’t get down from. Tell him to figure it out.”

I disagreed with this advice (obviously, as I was on my way to rescue him), but sat back down to finish my breakfast and waited to see what would happen. The other children ran to tell my son he was on his own. Twenty minutes later, all of the kids came back to the bakery — my son with torn pants and road-rash on his backside from sliding down the rocky hillside —  and all of them laughing.

Fast forward a few years. Last week we were in this same town, but this year, the same kid who got stuck on the mountainside took the paddleboard out onto the lake, farther and faster than I felt comfortable. 

Going out was one thing, with the wind at his back, but then it was time to paddle back to the dock into the wind. I watched as he paddled and worked, not making much headway. I watched as he lay down on the paddleboard, taking a break. The minutes passed and his paddleboard disappeared behind a ridge. I was on alert but not panicked when my brother-in-law got in his own kayak to go check on my son.

My son needs to get himself out of his own messes

That son, the one who had gotten stuck on the hillside and now seemed stuck in the lake, saw his uncle coming and began to paddle harder, back toward the dock. When my brother-in-law reached him and asked if he needed a tow, I was close enough to hear my son say, “No. I have to do this on my own.”

Of course, I was proud. His dad’s lesson years prior, forcing him to painfully slide down the rocky hillside on his butt, had led to this teenager, stuck on a paddleboard in the middle of a mountain lake, saying, “No. I have to do this on my own.” 

My dad’s sipping his coffee and refusing to take over the driver’s seat of the Jeep in 1990 forced me to calm my own nerves and try the clutch again. Now I can drive a standard, but more importantly, when I screw up, I know how to take a breath and try again. 

Don’t be a snowplow parent

I have been a parent for almost 16 years, and I have wanted to rescue my children 1,600 times at least. Thankfully, I have surrounded them and me with people who have better parenting advice and skills than myself. 

Now I can see how I needed to get back in the driver’s seat after nearly crashing a Jeep into a gas pump. And I can see why my son needed to scrape up his backside sliding down a mountainside, so that, years later, he would know how to look within himself to figure out how to get his paddleboard back across a lake. 

I definitely have tendencies to be a “snowplow parent,” the term coined by Julie Lythcott-Haims, going ahead of my children to ensure they don’t get hurt or have to learn any hard lessons. It is harder for some of us than others not to rescue our children from life’s hard lessons. But as time goes on, I appreciate the grit and resilience they have developed because of these experiences.

We won’t always be there to fix things for our kids

Life will at times be hard for our kids, and we will not always be there for them. My hope is that my son and his two siblings will carry with them the lessons they learned when I refrained from rescuing them. 

What I want for my kids is that upon finding themselves in a situation in which their inner voice says “There is no way out of this situation,” their inner voice next says, “What steps can I take to get myself out of this situation?” 

That way, when they find themselves in a car they are not sure they can drive, or on a mountainside that seemed easier to ascend than descend, or when they are paddling back across a lake into the wind, they will reach deep inside of themselves and find a way to figure it out. 

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Six Things Your Should Never Do as the Parent of a College Kid

About Julie Schlegel

Dr. Julie Schlegel lives in Houston. She has a B.A. degree in English from Baylor University and an M.D. from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School at Dallas. She completed a residency in pediatrics at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston in 2005. She is a wife and mother of three. In the early years of parenthood, the desire to write was smothered by the daily grind of working, raising the children, and trying to stay sane. Now, as the kids have gotten older, the fire to write is burning once more.

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