Raising Self-Sufficient Children
Billy hates his second grade teacher! He comes home after school and exclaims to his mom, “I hate Mrs. Smith and she hates me too.”
Billy’s parents try to figure out what’s going on. They visit with his teacher and talk to other parents. They decide to change his classroom.
Sarah’s on the soccer team and spends a fair amount of time keeping the bench warm. Her parents argue with the coach that she should have more field time.
This has become a familiar pattern in modern family life. Parents, who want to protect their children, intervene at school, in sports and on the playground. Many parents struggle with this issue—when do I take over and when do I let my kid figure it out for herself?
On the one hand, children have limited ability to advocate for themselves. They have little power in most situations in their lives. But on the other hand, are we always helping them when we jump in and “make it better” for them?
These are thorny parental problems. My youngest daughter pushed hard to go to sleep away camp, far from home, when she was eight years old. She was confident she would have a great time and could handle it.
But a few days into camp, the tear-stained letters from one homesick little kid came pouring in. These were followed by hysterical phone calls insisting that she had to come home right away or her life would be over.
Diane and I struggled to make the “right” decision, and ultimately we decided that she needed to stick it out. She was furious with us and told us that she would never forgive us! But, on the positive side, she did figure out how to make the best of a bad situation. Years later she told us we made the right decision. She felt good about her ability to get through a very tough situation.
So, how can parents approach these dilemmas? Here are some questions to consider.
- Is it a safety issue? In those situations, responsible parents take action. Getting beat up on the way home, emotionally abused by a coach, or pushed around by a bunch of older kids calls for action. I don’t think too many parents have to think twice about interceding.
- Is it a comfort issue? Clearly my daughter was not in an unsafe situation. She had many concerned adults looking after her. But an acute case of homesickness can be very painful for young children. I am sure that she was very anxious too. But it clearly was not a safety concern.
- What are the benefits of letting your kid stick it out? Learning how to manage uncomfortable and anxiety-provoking situations in life is a crucial adult skill. It isn’t easy to figure out how to manage difficult work problems, relationship issues, or life problems. But acquiring and honing those skills—including problem solving, tenacity, perseverance and good old-fashioned mental toughness—starts early. When children find their own solutions to difficult childhood problems they also develop a sense of independence and self-esteem. Parents can still help their kids work through possible solutions. But children don’t develop enhanced self-esteem when Mom or Dad take over. Furthermore, learning how to tolerate discomfort, which is often temporary, is another important skill. It comes in handy in adult life!
- Can I tolerate the discomfort I feel? Diane and I suffered several days of anxiety, worry and indecision about what to do. We spent hours debating what course of action made sense. It can be very hard for parents to cope with their children’s pain and suffering, even if we know it is temporary.
Don’t you wish your children came with how-to manuals? When your child faces uncomfortable, challenging moments, trusting them to find solutions is a vote of confidence.