Help Less

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about anxiety in children.  It seems that every third parent I meet or talk to has a child who struggles with anxiety (and I have some of my own).  I wish I (or anyone) knew the cause of this new trend.  If it’s occurring more often now, something must have changed. Is it environmental or biological or is it a change in our parenting? No one knows for sure, but I have an inkling that our helicopter parenting is possibly part of the problem, or, at best it’s not helping the situation.

In her book, The Gardener and the Carpenter, Alison Gopnik compares parenting to these two professions. If we parent like a carpenter, we have a blueprint-type plan, and we expect and envision our children to turn out exactly according to that plan.  We see parenting as a goal-oriented endeavor intended to create a particular kind of child and therefore a particular kind of adult.  In contrast, parenting like a gardener means we create a secure, loving environment and allow children to grow and develop in their own way.  We have a general expectation of how they might turn out, but we know that many factors are out of our control, so the end result might be a surprise. “Children are designed to be messy and unpredictable, playful and imaginative, and to be very different both from their parents and from each other.  The variability and flexibility of childhood lets them innovate, create, and survive in an unpredictable world.” (Goodreads description).

I love this analogy.  It is useful to keep this concept in mind as we try to guide our children. It might keep us from putting too much pressure on them or forcing them into certain activities or characteristics. We are just the gardeners, here to provide a safe and caring place for children try out life. Gopnik also points out that we don’t use our relationship to a person as a verb in any other context.  We don’t “wife” our husbands or “sister” our siblings! Modern culture has made parenting into an avocation or even a career.  This idea makes us feel negligent if we aren’t “doing something” with or for our children.  It’s possible that we “parent” more than we should. It’s not enough for our children just to be, to explore, to try new things, to not have a purpose for a while.  We feel that every activity they do must have a defined objective. Even the packaging of toys reinforces this:  Your child can’t just play with a toy for fun. The toy has to “stimulate brain development” or “encourage social connections.”

We would probably do well to give our kids a little less structure and let them roam free a bit more.  I have been thinking about two other ways to decrease helicopter parenting and reduce the emphasis we put on children to perform in a certain way.

The first is: Don’t correct unless necessary.

We feel it is our duty to teach our children how to do things and how to do them the right way. Under the guise of teaching we constantly correct our children, instructing them exactly how to perform all their tasks.  But this barrage of directives can wear on a child. He might start to think he doesn’t do anything right.  He also starts to believe there is a right way to do everything, and this can lead to anxiety.  It is absolutely untrue that there is a right way to perform every task, and our children would be better off if we gave them this wisdom: there are many ways to get a thing done.  If you can think of a way different than mine, all the better!

There are some tasks that must be done a certain way for safety, but many of the instructions we give our children are arbitrary and unnecessary. If your daughter puts a diaper on the baby and it’s not perfect, just let it go.  If you’re cooking with your son and he’s messy or doesn’t fill the measuring cup just right, just let it go.  Even if your child puts her shoes on the wrong feet, you could leave it be.  In every situation ask yourself, what is it going to hurt if she does it this way? The majority of the time the answer is it won’t hurt anything.  Would you want someone standing over you all the time, telling you you’re not doing it right? Everyone wants to try new things and gain mastery over novel challenges.  Give your child that opportunity without commenting on the correctness of the technique.

In general, try to make your home one where mistakes are accepted, or even applauded (because at least they tried).  Give your children the feeling that they can try new things and won’t be told they’re not doing it right. When you punish a child for trying, they are less likely to try new things. You can see how this could lead to anxiety in new situations. The best way children learn is to try things themselves, and that means they will make mistakes.  Making your own mistakes leads to mastery much faster than having someone stop you before the mistake and explain the correct procedure.

Whenever my children make mistakes (big or small) I try to say, “It’s ok. You are allowed to make mistakes.” We talk about what could have been done to avoid the mistake, but I really want them to know that mistakes are okay.  This is the key message I want to give, even more than learning how to act next time.  Fear of failure is definitely a cause of anxiety. In our family, we like to quote Hannah Montana: “Everybody makes mistakes; Everybody has those days; Everybody knows what, what I’m talkin’ ‘bout; Everybody gets that way.” (The song is “Nobody’s Perfect”; you should definitely play it for your children).

My second piece of advice to reduce the chance of anxious children is: Don’t help unless asked.

This one is related to “don’t correct unless necessary” but slightly different. When I was first going through my major parenting learning curve, I read a book called Smart Love.  The authors talked about how to help your child develop primary happiness, and one way to do that was to encourage mastery of developmentally appropriate tasks.  They gave the following example: if your baby is just to the stage where she can reach for a ball (while on her stomach or sitting up), don’t hand it to her when she reaches for it. Let her struggle and try. She might get frustrated but that might lead her to trying new approaches and eventually succeeding. The act of trying is pleasurable, and if you take that away from her, you are taking away a valuable life experience.

This idea was completely surprising to me.  I would have thought that a good parent would see her baby’s needs and help her.  If she were reaching for the ball, it would be my role to help her get it.  That’s what parents are for, right, to help their children? But it turns out there is the right kind of help and the wrong kind of help.  And unsolicited help is often the wrong kind. When you help a child do something they are attempting, you unwittingly give her the impression that she can’t do it herself.  This is the opposite of the message we want to give! We want to encourage our children that they can do many things themselves and the list is growing every day.  This will help them become independent, emotionally strong adults.

Just as in correcting, there are obviously times to help your child.  If safety is an issue, by all means jump in and rescue.  And when he or she asks you for help, it may be appropriate to help (it also may not be, and that gets a little tricky). But look for ways to not help.  Be on the lookout for things they can do themselves, even if it is taking effort or causing frustration.  Frustration is not a bad thing.  It can lead to more effort, more ideas, or more collaboration with others.  And when they eventually succeed, they will feel that much more confident and accomplished.  We’ve all seen the joy on a child’s face when she announces, “I did it myself!”

We may need to teach children (by modeling and by instruction) how to deal with frustration and make it work for them instead of against them, but please don’t give the impression that the fact of frustration itself is bad or wrong.  That can lead to giving up quickly, lack of self-confidence, and depression or anxiety.

Let children try things their own way, and even if they give up on a task, don’t rush in to help them and teach them the “right” way.  This takes a sort of purposeful neglect. You might need to leave the room or the situation if you can’t stop yourself from correcting! Just let them be, let them try things on their own. Mastering various tasks gives children great confidence.

Parenting is complicated. It’s hard to know when to correct or help and when to let children try things on their own.  Each parent’s line for intervening might be different.  However, we would be wise to consider holding back a little more.  Let children do things their way and let them keep trying even if they are not succeeding.  Parenting in this way takes patience and sometimes might look like avoidance, but the more children can do on their own, the more confidence and emotional strength they will have.