As a father of two, I can readily identify with Marlin’s heartfelt promise to Nemo in Finding Nemo: “Don’t worry, I’ve got you now. I won’t let anything happen to you.”
For many of us, the first moments of becoming a parent are riddled with a strange mix of love, excitement, and, yes, fear. Our minds begin playing the movie that seems to never quit—the clips of everything that could go wrong. From upset tummies to double ear infections, from being bullied to teenage heartbreak, we want to protect our children from every hard and painful experience we had growing up.
But as heroic as it sounds, it’s impossible. I love Dory’s challenge to Marlin’s parenting approach: “Hmm. That’s a funny thing to promise.…You can’t never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him!”
Point taken. We cannot rob our children from the significance of painful moments.
Only when we embrace the undesirable emotions of human experience can we appreciate and fully participate in the desirable ones.
To allow our children to feel—and fail—is to raise children sensitive and responsive to the world around them.
We must let our children live.
Before I continue—let me confess—helicopter parenting is my tendency. In the name of keeping our kids happy, we helicopter parents are pros at responding to our child’s needs, but we often expect too little from our kids (offering full support, but not enough challenge). As a result, our overprotected children are robbed of the opportunity to develop healthy individuality and self-confidence because they’re given few opportunities to tackle challenges and problem solve.[i]
The consequences are actually scary.
Children who grow up in a home with a larger than life wall of protection (i.e. helicopter parents) are “destined to an anxious adulthood, lacking the emotional resources they will need to cope with inevitable setback and failure.”[ii]
Though we’re attempting to love them as best we know how, our kids (progressively and subtly) hear the anxiety-producing message: You can’t do it on your own. Left to yourself, you’ll mess it up.
As parents, our responsibility is to help our children build self-confidence, determination, and resiliency so they can overcome failures, not believe they are one.
The only way for our kids to develop these skills is to allow them to face hardship, know we will be there to cheer them on (support), but not rescue them from life’s natural consequences (challenge).
Here are three practical ways we can move away from hovering over our children.
1. Don’t do for your children what they can do for themselves. As soon as our kids understand how to do something, we always ask them to do it (getting a diaper, brushing their teeth, throwing away trash, putting on their own clothes, and so on).
As she ages, encourage your child to step out and learn to make breakfast, do yard work, or try a new hobby. But catch yourself. Don’t try to correct or do it for her if she doesn’t do it the way you would as an adult. Though you may not verbalize it, the message your little girl receives is, “I don’t believe you have what it takes to cook eggs the right way.” Instead, come alongside and coach her, offering a balance of your loving support and truthful challenge.
My mom and stepfather were masters of this. Some of my favorite memories are when they’d teach me to fish. As I grew into my teen years, they began to entrust me with more responsibility, allowing me to take the lead in refurbishing a boat and even using a chainsaw to cut firewood.
2. Let your kids experience natural consequences. One of the areas we tend to overprotect is by shielding our kids from life’s natural consequences. If your son comes home from school and refuses to do his homework that night, don’t do it for him. Allow him to experience the poor grade.
Also, let them feel your disappointment as well. Don’t quickly jump to the rescue that “everything will be okay.” When they know we’re disappointed, we can influence our kids by showing we still love them in our disappointment. Doing so gives us the privilege of teaching them how to solve problems while feeling strong emotions.
Also, the more positive and fun environment we create with our kids, the easier it is for us to discipline them when they feel the rupture in our relationship with them.[iii]
3. Resist the pressure to always praise your kids. Our kids are not great at everything. We should not lie to them by telling them they are. If your toddler shows effort but messes up, give him an A for the effort and help him do it the next time.
The older our children get, however, the more we must consider their quality of work. We cannot reward expected behavior every time, or our kids will be expecting an A simply for submitting a paper in college or a raise just for going to work on time. Overpraising them only entitles them to believe they should be praised simply for showing up.
Again, our goal is to equip them to function competently in the real world, moving them from complete dependence as an infant to full independence as an adult.
[i] Juliana Negreiros and Lynn D. Miller, “The Role of Parenting in Childhood Anxiety: Etiological Factors and Treatment Implications,” Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice 21, no. 1 (2014): 3–17.
[ii] Jessica Lahey, “Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail,” The Atlantic, January 29, 2013, www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/01/why-parents-need-to-let-their-children-fail
[iii] Daniel J. Seigel and Tina Payne Bryson, No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind (New York: Bantam, 2014).