Imagine a three-and-a-half-year-old, in school, trying to put on his shoes and secure them with the velcro. The adult in the class sees him bending over and almost losing his balance, so she quickly does it for him. The next day, someone thoughtfully puts a low stool near the doorway, the child sits on it and gleefully sticks the velcro by himself. What a sense of achievement! He’s been helped to help himself.
However, the examples of helping the child help himself are becoming a rarity, in this day of abundance and ‘Extreme Parenting’. Madeline Levine talks of ‘Helicopter Parents in the Western world ’in her book, The Price of Privilege while the book ‘Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother’ details an emerging paradigm of parenting in China. Nancy Gibbs writing forTime magazine explains ‘Tiger Mothers’ as being “focused on success in precision-oriented fields such as music and math”, while helicopter parents are "obsessed with failure and preventing it at all costs". Madeline Levine describes helicopter parents as being ‘physically hyper-present’ but ‘psychologically absent’.
‘Parents in India are equally if not even more keen that their children do very well, gain admission to top universities and excel in every field. Even recreational activities like sports, music, painting or swimming have become as competitive as studies’ (Mukherjee Pandey, 2010b). Pushed by parents to be all-rounders, the perform-or-perish pressure on school kids is turning them into nervous wrecks (The Times of India, Kolkata).
As ‘caring & conscientious parents’, we believe that children are little people around the house who have to be constantly told what to do. ‘Time to sleep now, I’m switching off the light’ when he is still reading, or pushing a child to compete in dance or drama when he is reluctant or inhibited ‘because I know my daughter is very good in dance’ are refrains we have often heard.
When it comes to dealing with adolescent children, ‘I read the books my child is reading to see if there is offensive stuff’, or ‘we check their phones, or listen in to their conversations because we feel we can help them if we know what’s going on in their lives.’ We believe that we ought to know what is happening in our child’s everyday life and that with our nudging and guidance, our child will realize his utmost potential.
Julie Lythcott-Haims, who was the dean of freshmen at Stanford University for a decade, writes in her book, How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success - “We want so badly to help them by shepherding them from milestone to milestone and by shielding them from failure and pain…… that can leave young adults without the strengths of skill, will and character that are needed to know themselves and to craft a life.” Getting into Stanford, Harvard or other elite schools — bear the scars of the admissions arms race. “They’re breathless, They’re brittle. They’re old before their time.”
Our job as a parent is to put ourselves out of a job,” she says. “We need to know that our children have the wherewithal to get up in the morning and take care of themselves.”
Having said the above, the intention is not to advocate “No Parenting” or “Laissez-Faire”. We need to help our children become self-sufficient. We need to teach them the skills they’ll need in real life, and give them enough leeway to practice those skills on their own.
More specifically, what we can to do is to:
Observe:We need to build on our ability to sit back and objectively observewhat’s happening with our child. Once we can do that, we will observe that the toddler is struggling to fasten his velcro strap. That, he has to depend on others to help him.
Pause: Pausing helps us keep the faith in the child being a capable individual in his own right. Also, when we pause and let the child explore tasks, we give them a chance to try and succeed in their own unique way (and their way might be very different from ours).
Understand: When we understand that each experience is enriching the child physically and mentally, we start to look at each struggle as a stepping stone to mastering life skills. With this understanding, we can focus on creating an environment that supports the child to help himself. On observing and pausing, it was clear to the adult that the child could be helped in the task of putting on his velcro shoes by putting a stool near the doorway so that he would not lose his balance. This understanding creates a channel of empathetic communication which helps us connect with the child.
Respond with Empathy: We could respond to the child’s struggle with empathy. Instead of prescribing solutions, we can offer choices. Giving choices makes children feel respected and gives them a sense of independence. Once they have that sense of freedom and know that we trust them, they become responsible. Children become more receptive and seek our guidance when they feel connected with us. In the example of the velcro shoes, we could offer choices to the child - ‘would you like help or would you like to put on the shoes by yourself?’ OR ‘ I can see it’s hard for you to wear the shoes standing up. Would you like to sit on the stool ?’
The situation and age of children may be different yet observing, pausing, understanding and responding with empathy is something that we continue as we parent our children.
'When we adults think of children, there is a simple truth which we ignore: childhood is not preparation for life, childhood is life. A child isn’t getting ready to live - a child is living. The child is constantly confronted with the nagging question, “what are you going to be?” Courageous would be the youngster who, looking at the adult squarely in the face, would say, “I’m not going to be anything; I already am.” (T Ripaldi, from “Notes on A Unhurried Journey”).
Author: Dr Shalini Modi is a trained Montessorian and part of the team at Parenting Matters, an organisation which empowers parents to build deeper connection within families.