“Never do for a child what the child can do for themselves.” -Rudolf Dreikurs
I used to believe that solving my children’s problems was being a good mom … until I realized that I was stifling their growth. Doing things for your child that they can do for themselves hinders their ability to develop competencies and become self-sufficient.
Even at an early age, kids can work out solutions to their own problems — something I learned from the parent educator who taught the first parenting class I took with the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP) in Kensington, Maryland. I was lamenting the fact that my 9-month-old was repeatedly crawling under a four-legged stool and getting stuck. Correctly surmising that I was annoyed at having to constantly help him out of his predicament, she said, “Hmmm, I wonder what would happen if you just let him stay there until he figured it out himself.” “I could NEVER do that,” I explained. “He would get frustrated and angry and cry!” She convinced me to try it and he did just what I predicted. But he also quickly figured out how to crawl back out from under the stool while I was encouraging him from a few feet away. He was so proud of himself!
Ever since then, I’ve explored research and collected anecdotes about the strategy of allowing kids to struggle (a bit). Does sparing a child from all of life’s struggles help or hurt them?
Developing competence and confidence
Ned Johnson, co-author of “What Do You Say? How To Talk with Kids to Build Motivation, Stress Tolerance, and a Happy Home,” says “We all have the natural tendency to jump in and help our kids solve their problems. But what we really want for our kids is for them to learn to solve their own problems.”
When our child struggles, it is uncomfortable for us and for them. Although painful, the experience forces them beyond their comfort zone and requires them to develop persistence. Persistence is an important character trait. The first time you do something, it’s hard. Really hard. With practice, it becomes easier. That’s where growth comes from! I’m not advocating leaving your child to sort out their problems all on their own. That would be neglect! Parents need to be a supportive presence and show empathy when their child is struggling. Johnson, who is also the founder of PrepMatters, an educational advisory company in Washington, D.C., explains that “when we show empathy towards others, it calms down their central nervous system and allows the prefrontal cortex of the brain to start thinking and problem-solving.”
So, how do you know when your child is ready to start solving their own problems? There’s no magic formula for determining when to step in and when to step back, but here are some important factors to consider.
Age and developmental considerations
Younger children are less capable of making decisions and solving problems than teenagers, but that doesn’t mean parents should “rescue” them. Let’s say you are getting ready for work and Hunter, your 5-year-old, shouts, “Mom! I can’t find my shoes! Heeelllp!” Rather than going on a wild goose chase to find them, try asking Hunter some questions like, “Hmmm, if I were your shoes, where might I be?” or “I wonder where you took your shoes off the last time you wore them?” Allow Hunter to do the thinking. If that doesn’t help, and emotions start to escalate, empathize and offer possibilities. You could say, “It’s really frustrating to lose your shoes, isn’t it? I wonder if they could be under your bed?” Or “I can see you’re getting upset about not being able to find them. Why don’t you check under the table?”
Size & scope of the problem
For young children (and some older ones!), just deciding what to wear to school can seem like a big decision. Don’t decide for them. Let them choose between two or three acceptable outfits. Kids need opportunities to feel that they have some control over their lives. They are told what to do and when to do it so often that parents should offer choices whenever possible.
When your teen is struggling to decide whether to try out for the debate team, the decision is hers, and it might be helpful to recommend that she make a pro/con list or talk to someone who was on the team last year to get more information. Otherwise, don’t insert yourself into her problem. Teens need independent problem-solving skills on their path to adulthood.
When your teen tells you that his friend mentioned having thoughts of self-harm, you’ll want to take a more involved approach. As the adult, you’ll need to be more proactive in guiding him through a course of action. Research by neuroscientists shows that a human brain is not fully developed until age 25. So, more sophisticated problems call for greater support and active guidance from a parent.
When children are young, they need parents to be their allies and advocates. Parental involvement with school administrators, health care professionals and other institutions is crucial. As children age, they can start to learn how to advocate for themselves just from watching you model that behavior. Self-advocacy is an especially important skill that teenagers need to learn. They will struggle at first (“What should I say?” “Who should I ask?” “How do I ask for help?”), but with your support and guidance they will be able to ask for help from school staff, schedule their own doctor appointments and complete official forms for things like driver’s licenses and job applications.
It’s not easy watching your children struggle with tasks that you could easily take care of yourself. But you’d be stripping them of the opportunity to develop important problem-solving skills. If kids only complete tasks that come easily to them, they don’t reach their full potential. As hard as it was to let my son become angry and frustrated over getting trapped under a stool until he learned to wiggle his way out, I’m glad I did! He is now a competent and self-sufficient young adult who has developed great critical thinking skills. Besides, do you really want to be looking for your child’s sneakers when they become fully grown?
Problems you can let go of:
- Your child not making the bed.
- Your child forgetting their lunch (they’ll be hungry today; they’ll remember their lunch tomorrow).
- Your child wearing mismatched clothes.
- Dishes in the sink and damp towels on the floor.
Problems you CANNOT let go of:
- Health issues.
- Safety threats.
- Behavior that infringes upon the rights of others.