Here’s the thing. As hard as it is to admit to a parenting mistake, I’m going to tell you that for the first two and a half years of Carl’s life, I made a pretty big error. Yep, I said it out loud for all of you to hear (here come the Mommy Shaming trolls with their popcorn). Why am I opening up my inner thoughts to share my mistake with all of you? Because I hope that you can learn from my mistake.
Did you have a parenting method that was working great for you when you just had one child and then suddenly when number two came around you turned to your significant other (or self) and said, what the hell was I thinking? I never even noticed my mistake until Jack came around.
You see, I used to help Carl with every. single. thing. When he called, I ran to him immediately. I didn’t wait five seconds or ask him to try it himself first. Instead, I stopped whatever I was doing and rushed over to my precious child to solve his problem. Block tower fell over? No problem, Mommy will fix it. Can’t reach your cup on the counter? Mommy will get it. Need something else to eat for lunch? I’ll stop whatever I am doing and make you something in a matter of seconds so that you aren’t without food for more than a minute (I don’t want you to starve). Need a boost to climb up the stairs at the park? I’m right here to push on your little butt to get you up over the hurdle.
It didn’t matter what he needed help with, I was there. I took my perfectly capable child and made him incapable of doing anything on his own. By simply doing things for him and helping him as quick as possible, I was enabling him.
And then I had Jack. My parenting decision (or lack there of), caused my oldest boy to scream at me for help for what felt like hours minutes at a time while I was nursing his newborn brother. He looked at me with those big blue eyes and was completely lost. Without my help, he had no idea how to function. What should he do next? How could he get his water cup? Or how would he pull himself up onto the playground?
Now, part of me knows some of it was parenting and some of it was also personality. My oldest is a people pleaser. He is an old soul and is so endearing. Until he was about four and a half, he wouldn’t even climb out of his bed at night if he needed to use the bathroom or had a bad dream – instead he would call to us to ask permission. When you told Carl no, he listened. Also, he is not naturally adventurous (which may or may not be due to him falling down some stairs and breaking his ankle at 15 months – it took a lot to convince him to walk again). It’s that whole nature vs. nurture argument that makes it complicated when we reflect on our parenting choices (which I do often, even though I probably shouldn’t). Did we do something wrong, or is that how our child is built?
As a new Mom, I was terrified that I would break him. You see, it took a lot for us to get Carl. We had losses and years of trying to conceive, until we finally got our beautiful rainbow baby boy. I may, or may not have, treated him like he was the most precious thing on Earth for the first year of his life. I never want to take for granted how lucky I am to be a Mom. So I helped him. I didn’t want to watch him struggle or fail. Or worse, get hurt.
It’s easy as a new Mom to want to help your child with everything they do. The last thing you want is for your child to be without or to feel like you aren’t needed. The problem is, there is good help (getting the snack that’s on the top shelf in the cabinet) and then there’s unnecessary help (like fixing his block tower after it’s fallen). As a parent, it’s a balancing act to decide what your child truly needs help with and what, if given time, they can do for themselves, even if it means they struggle a little.
The best part is, if you let your child work on something themselves, whether they accomplish their task or fail, you’re teaching them some important life skills. When they succeed, you’re teaching them the value of perseverance, hard work, taking risks, and dedication. When your child fails, you’re teaching them to be humble, that it’s okay not to be first or always win, and that the world doesn’t fall apart when they don’t get what they want. Children learn a lot from failing – sometimes more so than when they succeed on the first try.
Now, times have changed in our house. When Carl or Jack ask for help, unless they can get hurt, I ask them to try it themselves first. Sometimes, Carl will ask me why I won’t help him. And my response is always a version of the same line, “it’s not that I don’t want to help you. It’s that I want you to learn how to do it yourself.” Most of the time, he’s okay with that answer, other times he gets frustrated and makes an angry face at me (I have to remind myself that it’s okay, I am his Mom, not his best friend).
So what are some things you can try to encourage independence?
- Wait. Children need some time to process and think about what they are doing and what they need to do to obtain their goal.
- Encourage them. When they’re frustrated with something, encourage them. Make sure they know you see how hard they are working. And make sure they know, you are right there cheering them on.
- Give them some suggestions. If they seem to still be struggling but you don’t feel it’s necessary to intervene just yet, then give them some suggestions. That way you aren’t doing it for them and they can still have a sense of accomplishment.
- Make sure they’re safe and feel supported. I think with most things in motherhood, there needs to be a balance. Make sure you are helping your child when you can tell they really need help or it’s a dangerous situation. You don’t want your child to think you are not there for them or are ignoring them all of the time.
- Know that it’s okay to help them when you are rushed or about to pull your hair out. Some days, you just can’t wait, and that’s okay. There are lots of days when Carl or Jack can’t find their shoes so try to wait and let them find then. (How can it possibly take so long to find a pair of shoes?) But, there are other days when we need to get out the door about ten minutes ago, so I hustle and look for them right alongside the boys.
- Let your children see you fail. I don’t mean purposely fail. But when you make a mistake or fail at something, talk about it. Let them know how you are feeling and how you are handling it.
- Let them fail. It’s okay to let your child fail. This may be the hardest point. But failure is part of life. They need to understand that it’s okay when they fail; the world will not come crashing down.
- Teach them it’s okay to fail. Once they fail, you have to teach them that it’s okay. Teach them to try again. Use it as a teachable moment that not everything we try in life will work out in our favor. Make sure they know it’s okay to be disappointed and upset but that they have to pick themselves back up and try again (or move on if they can’t try again).
So when you look down at your adorable new little baby, try to remember that it’s okay for them to fail. You don’t have to do everything for them. Taking chances is part of life. Failing is part of life. By protecting our children from failure, we are creating enabled, incapable children. Instead, provide them with the support to know that if they do fail, you will be right there to help pick up the pieces and wipe away the tears.