“You should let your kid handle his own challenges as much as possible,” I told my new friend in the park. “Your intervention will only sabotage him in the long run. I mean, let’s be real here, he will meet bigger challenges down the road, but if you fight his battles now, he won’t have the tools to take them on.”
We were sitting on a bench in the local playground, our babies on our laps, and I could hear my son’s squeals from the maze of swings and slides before us. “Right now, if you convince other children to be his friends,” I went on, “sure, he’ll be happy, but it won’t teach him anything about how to form friendships, you know?” My friend shaded her eyes to look for her own son, who trailed the other kids silently, far too shy to shout his joy. She didn’t respond.
A few weeks earlier, I read Kari Kubiszyn Kampakis’s article “Prepare the Child for the Road, Not the Road for the Child,” and it reverberated through me like a revelation. “When we clear the road for a child,”Kubiszyn Kampakis wrote, “we make their life too easy. We don’t allow them to build life-coping skills they’ll need down the road to handle life’s hard realities.”
This, I thought as I read those words. This is a perception of my role as a parent that I can live with. I’m not simply a diaper-changer-cum-boo-boo-kisser, a mere provider of temporary security and happiness for little people. I’m in charge of raising big people, well-adjusted people, people who will one day have to go on and forge their own happiness in life.
In the following weeks, I shared the article with anyone who’d listen, and preached its credo with the zeal of the newly-converted. My friend’s newest scheme to entice other children to befriend her son was all it took to draw me to the metaphorical pulpit, and I was getting in stride.
“We should let our children struggle and gain self-confidence now, while they’re still facing little league problems,” I pontificated, making expansive hand gesture to punctuate my point. “We should empower them by taking a step back and making space for them to grow.”
I nodded at my own words, and stopped to draw breath. But before I could go on, two things cut my sermon short.
My son stopped laughing as an older kid approached him belligerently.
And I was out of my seat, running full speed to defend my child.
Later, I lingered by the slides, too embarrassed to go back to the bench. Why, I asked myself, did I not follow the principle I preached? Why did I respond so disproportionately to a minor threat, even though I truly believed that letting my son handle it would have helped him gain valuable skills?
The gap between my principles and my actions continued to bother me after we left the park. Was I a hypocrite, preaching one truth to other parents while practicing another with my own children? Or was I simply too weak to do the right thing?
“Please go and wash your hands, sweetheart,” I told my son as I absentmindedly washed my own before dinner. He told me about his time in the park once we started eating, but I was too preoccupied to pay attention. I simply nodded from time to time, occasionally catching words like ‘slide’ and ‘fun,’ and only roused myself when it was necessary to say things like “please use your fork and not your fingers” and “use the napkin, not your sleeves.”
And then I snapped out of my thoughts, looked at the fork and knife between my fingers, and realized that I was neither hypocritical nor weak: I simply never bothered to train myself to give my children space.
Using cutlery, just like washing my hands before dinner, is second nature to me. But it wasn’t when I was a child, and I never expected it to come naturally to my own children. Just like I had to learn to follow certain norms, I knew and accepted that my kids will need many reminders to use their forks (or brush their teeth or say please and thank you), before they could aquire the habits that will make my reminders superfluous. Good manners take practice. Why should good parenting be any different?
Over the next few weeks, I carefully watched my responses to different situations. I forced myself to rein in the instinct to rush in whenever my children faced danger, unhappiness, or disappointment. But after numerous scraped knees and one unpleasant tetanus scare, I realized that completely grounding my inner helicopter mom wouldn’t work. Sometimes our intervention is necessary, but how can I tell the difference in the heat of the moment?
Armed with my newfound respect for habits, I thought up a list of questions to help me assess situations. “Is there an actual, concrete, and physical danger involved,” I asked myself whenever the mother-bear instinct kicked in. “Is my child old enough to handle this particular challenge? Can he handle it with the tools t his disposal? What will be the worst case consequence if he fails?”
Slowly, my instincts changed, and my practices started reflecting my principles. The inner helicopter stopped roaring into life whenever my son’s smile slipped off his face, and I could see my son maturing into the spaces I stepped out of.
This, I thought as I sat in the park and watched him play. This is a perception of my role as a parent I can live with: Someone who helps people of all sizes grow up. Because even as I’m preparing my precious future adults for the road, I’m also raising one past-child –-myself–-into a better parent.