Since writing about perfectionist parenting a couple weeks ago, I’ve been wrestling with a couple of questions that keep coming up throughout my entire life as a mom:
When do I let my kids learn from hard knocks and when do I step in and help?
How do I keep my good intentions from interfering with their necessary learning curve?
Miss Sylvia, my son’s preschool teacher, taught me a lot about this with one short lesson. As I observed her class one day, a little boy asked her to thread a needle with yarn so he could do a sewing activity. She replied with a kind and firm, “No, you can do it. Keep trying.”
With lessons learned comes confidence
His face fell and I thought she was being kind of mean, but when I asked her about it, she told me:
“When he figures out how to do it, he will feel more confident in himself than if I had done it for him.”
Hmmm…. And wow.
I love to help because it makes me feel useful and needed. This is a good thing until helping turns into doing it all myself (so that it’s done right, of course, or sometimes I’m just in a hurry!).
Miss Sylvia taught me that doing too much for children robs them of the opportunity to develop confidence through their own learning process.
When to intervene and when to back off
There were times, of course, that my kids needed help to learn skills.
It couldn’t all be about figuring things out on their own. I just needed to make sure that I was doing it with them, not doing it for them.
Watch carefully for signs that they are ready to be more independent, and then step back and marvel at how capable they are!
That “hard skill” stuff is the easy part. The tough part is knowing when to step in or out when there were opportunities for learning “soft skills” like
- using good judgment
- developing self-control
- taking risks
The guiding question that helped me—and still helps me!—is, “Whose problem is it, anyway?”
Who’s primarily impacted?
The answer is almost always: them.
Sometimes, I will be affected by how they handle their problem, so if my money is going to be spent, my time impacted, or my principles compromised, then I get to have input in my kids’ choices.
Also, if their decisions are going to put their safety in jeopardy (using drugs or alcohol, driving recklessly, etc.) then I have a responsibility to step in and set firm boundaries.
However, if they choose to manage their lives in a way that makes my type-A, highly-structured self want to pull my hair out, as long as they’re not going to die from their choices, it really is necessary that I keep my mouth shut and my arms open.
Remember: Your kids’ lives are not your lives
Mouth shut: The fastest way to activate a teen’s rebellion button is to tell them what they SHOULD do.
So I try very hard to just listen and express trust in their ability to handle their own challenges, as I repeat in my head the mantra: Their life, their choices! Their life, their choices!
Arms open: I am here for hugs—congratulatory, forgiving, soothing, whichever kind they need! No shame, no blame, and advice only if it’s asked for.
An honest look inward has revealed that the trap I fall into is less about wanting them to make the right decision and more about wanting them to make the decision that I want them to make.
I dash down the path ahead in my mind, seeing all the wonderful things that will magically fall into place if they would just choose what I would choose for them!
Running too fast, of course, causes me to lose my footing and fall headlong into the pothole that my husband calls “one question or comment too many.”
They’re on their own journey
My kids are sharp. They can tell when I’m trying to steer them, and of course, they don’t want to be steered. So I get eye rolling and annoyed sighs and quite frankly, a longer period of time before they decide to share their stuff with me again. That’s my lesson to learn—apparently, over and over! (Because it’s HARD!)
What I know in my heart and truly believe is, my kids are on their own journey, and they deserve the opportunity to experience their own life lessons.
I also know that there is usually no right decision; there is only the decision we make and what we do once we’ve made it. Sometimes, we keep moving forward, and sometimes we need to course correct. That’s how we learn.
It’s not my job to walk ahead and drag my kids along behind me. It’s my job to walk beside them and offer encouragement. And hugs. Always hugs.