Have you ever dressed your 4-year-old because you can do it faster, or told your 7- year-old she has to wear a coat when she says she isn't cold? Can I get a show of hands of other parents who have "helped" their fifth grader on a Science Fair tri-fold board because we can cut straighter and center the background paper more evenly? Who can join me in having our tween's long-term assignments on OUR calendar?
Why do we parents fall into the trap of overprotecting our kids from short-term struggles and underpreparing them to cope with life's long-term challenges? Intellectually, we know that overparenting undermines a child's initiative and sends him or her off into the world unprepared to make independent choices and own the consequences of those choices (both positive and negative). Yet it can be difficult to translate that knowledge into practice.
21st century challenges
The use of "parenting" as a verb is a new phenomenon. It's also a tricky concept to define because the nature of "parenting" is an ever-changing business. Over the 18 years we are considered "active parents" (raising a minor child) we move, ever so gradually, from needing to protect our children to needing to prepare them. As much as we may try to straighten the road and take out the bumps for our beloved children, we all know life is filled with obstacles, setbacks, road blocks and weather we can't control. The real job of "active parents" is to work ourselves out of a job in those 18 years.
Hal Runkel, author of "Scream Free Parenting," believes parenting has changed in recent decades as a result of the 24/7 news cycle, the Internet and the ability to check our children's grades, school attendance and whereabouts at any moment. Runkel says, "If we think our number one job is to protect our child, then anxiety is going to drive the boat. We will want to know before they make a mistake or get into trouble."
Instead, we need to redefine our number one job as preparing children to live as independent adults. As Runkel notes, "The more we protect them, the less we prepare them. Think - I am supposed to protect them in the service of preparing them, not vice versa."
Loosening the reins
Runkel suggests that parents set a goal of having no rules for children by their senior year in high school. Senior year becomes a dry run for college, with freedom and responsibility living side by side. What can we expect to happen during senior year? Mistakes! In the wise words of Mark Twain, "Good judgment is the result of experience, and experience the result of bad judgment."
Parent educator and educational consultant Wendie Lubic (a.k.a., The College Lady) observes that when we first receive our children, we manage every aspect of their lives - when they go to bed, the books they read, the screens they have access to and the rhythm of their day. As kids grow older, parenting morphs from managing kids to being their on-demand consultants. "Guidance is important, if it is solicited," Lubic notes. But she warns that consultants have to wait to be asked for advice: "If it's unsolicited, then you are crossing the line."
Three steps to breaking the over-protecting habit
What can we do when we discover that we are overprotecting and underpreparing our kids? How can we face our fears with courage?
As a first step, we need to become mindful of the three-pronged response that kicks in when problems arise - a response comprised of thoughts, emotions and actions. Let's say a child has not yet mastered the skill of consistently turning in his homework. This situation triggers anxious thoughts: "Did Joe hand in his homework today? If he doesn't, he will get a B- for the quarter and say goodbye to the Ivy League." Our anxious thoughts fuel anxious emotions, and our knee-jerk actions might be to check online, text the child, find the homework in his bedroom and drive it to school.
Does this prepare the child to turn in his homework independently, or does it merely reinforce his dependence? If our response is not in the service of preparing, we can plan a better response for the next time. By changing one or more of the three prongs, we can move from anxious protecting to compassionate preparing.
ACTIONS: Take a break. Leave the scene. Go on a 20-minute walk. Any of these actions will help create space for new thoughts and emotions.
THOUGHTS: Remember Mark Twain's words of wisdom: "Good judgment is the result of experience, and experience the result of bad judgment." You might also think: "In the long run my child will need to remember his work. I believe he is capable. Better to experience forgetting when he is in eighth grade than forgetting in college. He remembers to hand in his homework more times than he forgets."
EMOTIONS: After 20 minutes of walking and trying on new thoughts, emotions will downgrade from anxiety and fear to compassion and curiosity. We will be able to greet our child after school with an open mind, an understanding heart and true curiosity about how he handled his problem. Kids are much more creative, capable and motivated than we give them credit for.
Practice makes progress - for adults as well as kids
When we find ourselves overparenting, we can take our good-hearted love, tweak it a bit and transform protection into preparation. Calming our own anxiety allows children space and time to grapple with the responsibilities that life throws at them.
With practice our children will become prepared. And prepared young adults can go about the business of living their own big lives and protecting themselves.
Common examples of over-parenting
Dressing preschoolers instead of letting them practice doing it themselves
Waking up school-age kids instead of letting an alarm clock do the job
Nagging about homework instead of encouraging the use of a planner and schedule
Checking grades more frequently than the child does
Doing extra credit work for the child rather than holding them responsible
Worrying more about their future then they are
*Originally Published in Washington Parent, March 2017