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May 29 2013

The Secret of Parenting: Do Less

By at 2:36 pm

little boy washing dishesI have finally unlocked the secret of parenting. Here it is: Most Of The Time, The Less You Do, The Better Your Kids Will Turn Out.

Counterintuitive? Perhaps. Throwing a goose into the rotors of helicopter parents everywhere? Yes. But true? In many cases, yes: benign neglect is GOOD.

Important caveats: obviously, this theory does not apply to babies, children with special needs, or children who deal with some sort of disability. This also does not absolve you, the parent, of any and all childcare related activities. And, of course, results may vary.

Kids need to learn how to be independent and do things for themselves–and, I have learned, they will never learn how to be independent if I don’t step back and let them do things for themselves instead of me doing it for them. I think one of the best things I have done as a parent is learning that I need to do less, and stepping back and in fact, doing less.

If you’re like me, there is a lot in the course of your day that you are doing for your kids that they could, and should, do for themselves. Why? We say things like, “Oh, it’s just faster if I do it,” or, “They won’t do it right,” or, “I don’t want to get into an argument about it.” But think long-term: it’ll be a lot faster once the kids learn how to do whatever it is right by doing it themselves–and that is surely worth one argument.

Don’t pick their clothes up from the floor: instead, make it clear that you expect them to do it. Don’t set the table for family meals: set up a system where one kid knows he does Thursdays, another kid Fridays, etc. The key to this path from the parental point of view is not just sitting back and doing nothing (sadly): it’s making your expectations clear, and then letting your kids rise up to meet them.

And the converse applies as well: if your kid screws up, don’t leap in to fix the mistake. Mistakes are the world’s answer to “teachable moments.”

By way of example, after one too many times of “‘having to” drive back to school to get forgotten homework, I found myself getting more and more pissed off at my two elementary-school-age boys. My yelling was doing nothing, except making a vein stand out from my forehead in a worrisome way. So finally, I sat the boys down and explained that while I was happy to pick them up from school every day, it was their responsibility to bring home their homework. From this point forward, I told them, if they forgot their work at school, I would not be taking them back to school to get it. Nor would I write a note on their behalf excusing them for not having done it. Instead, I had the boys write out contracts with me in which they explicitly agreed that if they forgot their books at school, they would be responsible for the consequences.

Guess how many times they’ve forgotten their books since? Zero. Not only did I get the results I wanted, but I also had much less frustration, because the responsibility was placed on the kids’ shoulders rather than my own–where, I might add, the responsibility belongs. After all, it is not MY homework.

This idea applies to smaller kids as well. My almost-2-year-old knows she has a night to set the table, even if I have to tell her that it’s her night and have to give the dishes to her one by one (I learned that one the hard way). She also knows that when we come back from the supermarket, she can’t play with her toys unless she helps bring two (lightly packed!) bags to the kitchen. My 7-month-old baby is a cute irresponsible dumpling, but her time will come.

This idea goes against the current trends in parenting, which seem to advocate being as involved in your children’s lives as possible, from being their Facebook friends to texting with them all day. Even sleepaway camps–formerly safe stomping grounds where kids could exercise independence–are now places with videocameras where parents can log in online and see daily pictures of their child at various activities. As much as I love my children–or perhaps because I love my children–that is not the place I want to have in their lives. I need to take a step back–both for my sake and theirs.

At the Child and Adolescent Anxiety Disorders program at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, a recent Wall Street Journal article noted, therapists “use an innovative approach early in treatment, gradually exposing children to things they fear most and teaching parents to act as ‘exposure coaches’ rather than enable their children to avoid things and situations as a protective measure.”

In fact, the article notes, when parents help children to escape from feared situations, anxiety symptoms may worsen and children frequently become more impaired, says Stephen Whiteside, a Mayo pediatric psychologist.

“Kids who avoid fearful situations don’t have the opportunity to face their fears and don’t learn that their fears are manageable,” he says.

I do not want my kids to be afraid. I do not want them to grow up and call me from college, asking whether they should have pizza or tacos for dinner, like the kids in this article. Instead, I want to teach my kids self-reliance and self-confidence–lessons that will last long after I cease to be the nucleus of their day-to-day lives.

And the only way to do that is by stepping back and letting them step up.

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