A few years ago, I had an epiphany: I was a hovering, overprotective, failure-avoidant parent.
As a middle school teacher, I'd long been aware of helicopter parents as a problem in society at large. I witnessed firsthand how today's risk-averse parenting style has undermined the competence, independence, and academic potential of an entire generation. But in the classroom, I thought of myself as part of the solution, a champion of my students' intellectual and emotional bravery. The epiphany came when I saw that the same caution and fear I witnessed in my students was showing up in my sons. I had to admit that as a parent, I was actually part of the problem.
My sons were good, well-adjusted kids, but I couldn't shake the sense that when it came time for them to head out on their own and make their way in the world, they were ill-prepared. As long as they stayed inside the safe haven I'd created for them, they were confident and successful, but when forced to venture outside, would they know how to function? I'd so successfully researched, planned, and constructed their comfortable childhoods that I'd failed to teach them how to adapt to the world on its terms.
For example, my younger son, then a third-grader, had never learned to tie his shoes. I blamed this oversight on the invention of Velcro and his preference for slip-on shoes, but if I'm completely honest, I knew I was falling down on the job. He freaked out when I mentioned the situation, even in my most enthusiastic, "Won't this be a fun project we can do together?" voice. He got frustrated with my instruction, I got frustrated with his helplessness, and the entire endeavor dissolved into anger and tears. Tears. Over shoelaces. When I began to look closely at the source of his issue with the shoelaces, it all boiled down to his feelings of frustration and helplessness, which was my fault, not his. I taught him that.
For every time I tied his shoes, rather than teach him to do it himself, I reinforced his perception that I believed the task was too hard for him. Eventually he and I both began to wonder whether he'd ever prevail. One day before school, when he'd left his Velcro shoes at a friend's house and had to wear the backup pair with laces, he said he'd rather wear his rain boots than try to tie his shoes. He didn't even care that wearing boots meant he'd have to sit out gym class all by himself.
This, right here, is what I had wrought: My son was so convinced of his inability that he was willing to forfeit an hour of playtime with his friends.
I resolved to do what I needed to do to guide my children back toward the path to competence and independence. The way isn't smooth, and the going certainly isn't easy, but that's kind of the point.
Our parenting transformation
When my husband and I started to transform our own parenting, we knew it would be a shock to the flawed system we'd been cultivating in our family for years. Rather than leave our kids to wonder whether their parents had suddenly been taken over by aliens, we sat down one night with them and laid it all out—our parenting transgressions and our plans to reform. Yes, the teen rolled his eyes. My younger son asked to be excused from the table about two minutes into the discussion.
But when we admitted that we had been doing things all wrong, and that we believed that changing the way we parent would make them better, more independent, confident, and competent people, I think I caught them listening. We told them that the more competent they became, the more we would let them do for themselves. The more we saw that they could handle difficult decisions, the more we would trust them to make them.
My son was so convinced of his inability that he was willing to forfeit an hour of playtime with his friends
There were some initial hiccups and setbacks, maybe even some pushback and tantrums, but once the kids figured out we had no plans to go back to our old ways of dependent parenting, they stepped up. My older son, who has always been fairly independent, started to take responsibility for everything in his life I did not need to be a part of anymore. He started using the alarms on his calendar as a backup for his spotty memory. He made checklists to help him remember the things he needs to do before the start of the school day. He organized his forms for high school and gave me what he needed me to read and sign. He took control of ordering his back-to-school supplies, packed for two weeks of camp, and left notes for me on the counter when people called.
My younger son, who is usually willing and eager to let me do everything for him, suddenly took charge of his morning tasks without being asked and even made a checklist after forgetting his towel one day at our local pond. He cleaned his room, organized his desk, and figured out where and when he planned to complete his homework every night. Best of all, he saw that my older son could do the laundry and asked to be taught how to use the washer and dryer, too.
Two weeks into our blissful honeymoon period, my younger son suffered a bit of a setback in his journey toward autonomy and competence. As the door slammed closed on the last kid heading for the school bus, I noticed his math and spelling homework lying on the living room coffee table. I looked out the window at the bus stop, and there he was, oblivious to his oversight, twirling his hands in the air while explaining some detail of an imaginary world to his friend Pearce. I looked back down at the homework. And back out the window. And back to the homework.
And then I did my best to get on with my day, knowing that I was scheduled to stop by the school later, and it would be so easy to deliver his homework to his classroom, maybe even surreptitiously slide it into his locker or backpack. He'd done such a good job on it, too, so conscientiously completing it in his neatest handwriting, effort now wasted. I picked it up off the table, looked at the neat letters and numbers, and put it down again.
Flummoxed, I turned to Facebook and posted,
For those of you who think this whole letting my kids mess up is easy, know this. One of my sons left his homework assignment on the living room table, completed in a timely and neat fashion. I have to go to his school anyway to drop something off. Leaving that homework on the table, knowing it will cost him his recess today is KILLING ME. I've looked at it twenty times, even picked it up once. But there it is. And there it will stay, waiting for him to see when he gets home and realizes what he could have done to make sure that homework made it into his backpack and his teacher's hands.
Facebook friends began responding immediately, many with their pledges of support and enthusiastic approval and lots of "Likes," but one friend posted her strong disapproval.
Jessica I admire you greatly, as I hope you know, but I could not do this. I forget things every day. I have driven things to my husband's office that he has left on the kitchen counter. I think a certain level of distraction is inevitable in our lives, no matter how hard we try, and high school kids are the most overwhelmed by it. I would be so happy that the homework was done, on time, neat and ready that unless I was unable to do so, I would take it to school. I would save my consequences for homework that was not done or was not done well.
I thought about her words for the rest of the morning. I had to admit that, yes, I would go out of my way to deliver a friend's forgotten wallet, or my husband's forgotten power cord, so why would I treat my children any differently?
Because I'm not raising those other people. I treat my children differently because I have a greater responsibility to them than to make them happy and grateful for my love and support. In order to raise competent, capable adults, I have to love them enough to put their learning before my happiness.
The more we saw that our sons could handle difficult choices, the more we would trust them to make them
Still, I fretted and puzzled over my decision all day long. Why not just be a nice mom and give him a break this one time? When it came time to head over to the school, and that homework whispered to me one last time, I realized why I could not. I went back inside the house to post my eureka moment to the Facebook thread:
As my discussions with Finn over the last couple of weeks have been about packing away homework the night before so it does not get lost in the rush of morning, this is a perfect way to drive that point home. And Finn does know I have his back. I make sure he knows that every day, in every way, and yes, I forget and lose things, too (my keys, like 10 times a day) but those mistakes cause me to come up with strategies to help remember the next time. This homework is a specific response to a specific deficit in his planning, and will pay huge dividends in the end in terms of a teaching moment.
When my son came through the door at the end of the day, he was greeted by the smell of cookies baking. If I could not feed my need to feel like a good mom by delivering his homework and saving the day, I figured a batch of warm cookies might serve as a suitable alternative. All the love, none of the rescuing.
As he dumped his backpack on the floor and began to unpack his lunchbox, I asked him how his day went. I raised one eyebrow and pointed to the homework, still sitting on the coffee table. What did his teacher say, I asked, when he found out the homework was missing?
"It was okay. My teacher and I talked about how to remember my homework, and he said I could bring it tomorrow."
I have to love my sons enough to put their learning before my happiness
"That's it?" I asked. "No staying in from recess or giving up your free time?"
"Oh, yeah. I had to do some extra math practice during reading time, but I can just read some extra time tonight. And he made me promise to write a note in my homework book to help me remember to take my homework in tomorrow."
And he did just that. He wrote himself a note, and he remembered his homework the next day, and (almost) every day since. Facing the consequences of his failure taught him so many things that day. He learned to own up to his mistake, and to talk to his teacher about solutions. He was encouraged to think about how to keep from making the same mistake again, and devised a system that worked for him. And, as we discovered when we sat down together after that night's homework was done, our cookies were warm, delicious, and guilt-free.
Jessica Lahey is an educator, author, and speaker. She writes the biweekly column "The Parent-Teacher Conference" for the New York Times, and is a contributing writer for the Atlantic and a commentator on Vermont Public Radio.
This article is adapted from The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed (HarperCollins) by Jessica Lahey.