Over many years of teaching and parenting, I have observed two trends in how parents relate to their children. I’m not the first to notice these, or point them out, but I think they are related. And that relationship is problematic.
The first trend is mounting parental anxiety. I hear lots of parents expressing worry that they are missing something, or doing something wrong, when it comes to their child’s well-being and future success. Whether it’s nutrition, academic performance, mental and emotional wellness, social skills, or other critical areas, I often hear parents say they fear that they may be messing their child up, either by omission or commission.
This anxiety seems ubiquitous. It is also highly personal, based on a combination of a child’s weaknesses and struggles and a parent’s hopes, goals and concerns about that child’s future. For example, I often hear parents worry that a child will not be driven and organized enough to succeed in challenging academic environments after high school (assuming they are admitted). They worry that a child might have difficulty holding employment, maintaining friendships or having long-term relationships. Or, it might be smaller: fears that the child will never remember to get required supplies together, that they will forever be losing important things. Sometimes it’s not specific — there’s just worry. Meanwhile, parents who are not necessarily anxious or worried sometimes hear their peers and wonder if perhaps they should be, which then causes worry. It’s a vicious cycle.
To be sure, if you look at a child, especially during adolescence, and make straight-line projections, there could be serious cause for concern. Adolescents can be moody or explosive. They often experience — or cause — social turmoil and forget everything from gym clothes to major assignments.
But the good news is that adolescence is usually self-correcting. With time, experience and maturity, things generally get better. A student who gets enough bad grades usually figures out how to do better. Someone with social problems often either comes to understand things he or she may change, or will find different friends. A disorganized student will eventually figure out how to get organized, or will find some other workaround. This can take years, but it does happen. In fact, I’ve come to believe it is the prime task of middle school.
The bad news is that this self-correction only happens after it has become the student’s problem. This in turn happens when they have experienced consequences — which are life’s way of teaching someone not to do something, or to do it differently.
And that brings me to the second trend, which makes the first worse. It’s ironic that, even as they worry about messing their kids up, so many well-meaning parents spend considerable time and energy keeping their kids from experiencing the consequences of their actions. This strikes me as worrying about an illness while throwing the most effective medicine away.
There are different names for this: helicopter parents, concierge parents, snowplow parents — on and on. But the main idea is the same: Parents prevent children from experiencing the consequences of their actions in any number of ways. This might include intervening with teachers and coaches to advocate for a specific outcome, even when it’s not a serious or long-lasting situation. Parents might run assignments, forgotten lunches or equipment to school. They might try to neutralize disciplinary outcomes or get rules and policies waived. They get involved in peer conflicts and manage the social calendar — the list goes on.
If we are worried about our children being prepared to be happy and successful in life, one of the best things we can do is to stop insulating, cushioning and intervening.
Of course, parents can’t let go completely. We have a critical role, guiding and advising. We can provide perspective or advice, and help them brainstorm solutions to problems. We do this, incidentally, based on what we have learned through our own experience — often from consequences we experienced.
There might be times when a child is truly in danger. Power imbalances sometimes require parents to step in. But these instances ought to be the exception. If a parent spends more energy trying to either prevent or alter consequences than they do coaching, guiding and reflecting, that’s a sign that something is wrong. If we treat every situation as mission critical, we are probably off base.
It’s admittedly hard to recognize and fix this. It’s something I’ve struggled with. I’ve tried to ask myself a few questions to assess my own level of potential over-involvement.
1. When was the last time my child experienced a negative consequence based on choices they made?
2. When my child has problems, do I help coach them through it or do I try to fix it?
3. How often have I contacted teachers, coaches or others to try to ensure or protest a particular, non-urgent outcome?
If you suspect you are doing a lot of intervening, talk to a seasoned parent: a neighbor, or a trusted teacher, perhaps someone your child had in the past. Ask them for candid feedback.
The wonderful thing about allowing kids to experience consequences is that it allows them to be taught far in excess of our own wisdom or skill. Three of my five children are grown and gone — pursuing productive and happy lives. All of them had their serious ups and downs. Sometimes — most times — my wife and I didn’t know how to fix their problems. Happily, we didn’t have to have all the answers, because the experiences allowed our kids to figure things out as they went. Life presented each child with an intensive, personalized, highly effective curriculum. Our younger two are in the same intensive internship, and I’m grateful for all they are learning.
Braden Bell is a teacher, writer and director from Nashville. The author of seven novels, he blogs and writes a newsletter with reflections about parenting adolescents. He’s on Twitter @bradenbellcom.