“I’m feeling a little confused,” I said to my kindergartener as she stood next to the cubbies in our classroom, staring up at me innocently.
“Why?” she replied in query.
“Well, I’m not really sure why you threw your backpack on the ground, and I’m also not sure why it’s your mom’s job to pick it up.”
My little munchkin turned her gaze towards her mother, who stood, smiling back at me knowingly. It was my palpably subtle way of imparting a lesson on both my student and my student’s mom through simple questioning in an authentic moment. Clearly, this child had developed an expectation that her mother be responsible for her things when, at the age of 5, she was more than ready to be taking care of her possessions--and our classroom--with full independence.
If there’s one thing that’s become clear to me as an educator for the past six years, it’s that parents have nothing but the best intentions when helping their kids. Being a parent in today’s world is scary. The pressures to ensure a child’s success both in school and in the years that follow schooling are tantamount to the many other pressures in life--paying the mortgage, saving for retirement, or even just finding presence of mind in a happy life. And this pressure does incredible things to parents. It brews fear, causes them to react, and makes them hover. What parents don’t quite realize is that by helping more--and by doing more--they’re actually helping their children less, and in some cases, doing them a disservice.
While it may feel hard to let go, and while the thought of not controlling each and every variable in your child’s life may be somewhat unsettling--because you are, therefore, allowing bad things to happen to them--there are a few things you can do to foster independence at a young age, still allowing you to monitor your child’s development, but meanwhile helping them find their own path through thoughtful risk-taking and constructive failure.
Praise the journey, not the achievement. Praising every action doesn’t teach a child anything and certainly doesn’t help their self-esteem. If anything, it makes them more reliant on external validation and less intrinsically motivated. Carol Dweck, known for her research on intrinsic motivation and growth mindset, states that “the wrong kind of praise creates self-defeating behavior,” while “the right kind motivates students to learn.” This “right kind” of praise refers to hard work, process, and perseverance. Saying things like “I like how you tried again even though you failed the first time” or “My goodness! You worked so hard to clean up your things even though you didn’t want to!” are simple changes in verbiage that will reinforce the root of the behaviors that parents really want to cultivate in their children. Instead of parents simply getting their children to comply with directions, children slowly develop the intrinsic motivation to do make constructive decisions--or learn from their mistakes--independently. Your days of “wanting them to want to,” will soon become a reality.
Help your child see the natural consequences of his or her behaviors. And this includes the positive consequences, too. Too often, we use the word “consequence” negatively, when consequences, taken at face value, are simply byproducts of our actions. When we eat food that is healthy for us, the consequence is that we feel better and have more energy; likewise, when we don’t keep track of our things, we can’t find them or even lose them for good! More often than not, as was the case with the aforementioned student who had become overly reliant on her mom to pick up her things, I see parents helping too much and doing too much for their children, taking away the opportunity for the child to notice said consequences. If children always come home to a clean room, they never develop the capacity to notice when it needs to be cleaned; likewise, if parents are always putting their things in the proper place, a child never develops the mindful ability to notice that disorganization causes them to lose track of their things, wasting time and energy. But this can be rectified with an even simpler lesson, one that without, will render the previous two lessons useless.
Above all, let your child fail. I know. It’s hard. Because all parents want to do is watch them succeed. All parents want them to have is all of the opportunities they didn’t have. They want them to feel happy all of the time, and never have to know the pain of failure. But ironically enough, those who have felt pain, those who have felt failure, and those who have had the opportunity to amend their failures independently build the character, grit, and malleability to succeed in unfamiliar situations. They have the self-management, working memory, and executive functioning skills that come from an awareness of their surroundings as well as accountability from their peers and adult role models. It sounds counterintuitive, but it is through allowing failure to happen--even when you can predict it--that parents invest in their child’s happiness and success long-term.
And the return on this investment is great, just like any other investment in life. When one rides the ebbs and flows of the stock market or quits a bad habit, pain and hardship are present. But abandoning these investments throws away the hard work, as well as the product of patience and perseverance. In fact, sometimes, when investing, we accomplish less by doing more, when all along, we could have done the opposite. It leads me to wonder: when we help our children, are we helping them truly for their own well-being, or are we helping them so that we can avoid the pain and uncomfortability that accompanies watching our precious little ones struggle and feel pain?
The answer? Only you will know through trial-and-error, but perhaps by teaching your children these simple lessons about failure and independence, you will teach yourself a thing or two, as well.