5 Crucial Life Skills Kids Can Only Learn When Parents Back Off

Family Matters on 03.05.13
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It’s hard to stand back and watch our kids struggle in frustration, to make mistakes and to suffer setbacks. But stand back we must, because in today’s world of helicopter parents, there’s a very real threat that we will raise this generation of kids to feel helpless yet simultaneously entitled to near-constant applause for expending very little effort. Teach your kids these five skills and you'll equip them with the strength and courage to be great.

1. Responsibility

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In order to encourage your child to own her experiences and to know that she has control over her destiny, it’s imperative that we let kids suffer natural consequences. This means that when your child does something like leave a book at school that she needs to do her homework that night, you don’t fix the problem for her by running back to school to get the book. (Hat tip to my friend Meredith, a teacher.) Let your child explain to her teacher the next day why her homework wasn’t done, and let the teacher deliver whatever those consequences might be, which could mean a lower grade.

An unsuitable but popular alternative would be to admonish the child ourselves and then rescue them by retrieving the book so they can keep the good grade. This doesn’t teach the child responsibility for her actions and the resulting consequences. Getting yelled at or grounded by mom is not a real-life consequence of what happens when we’re careless, and it merely teaches us, “Don’t annoy Mom.” So no matter how obnoxious your punishment, it’s not as impactful or helpful as real-world consequences.

Let your child interact with the real world and learn real consequences rather than always stepping in and being overinvolved with discipline and instruction.

2. Resilience

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It takes a certain amount of restraint as parents to stop trying to fix everything, including negative feelings. Kids need to be allowed to feel sad or upset. They need to know that they don’t need to feel happy all the time in order for you to love and accept them. When our kids feel safe expressing their negative feelings to us, from tantrums to heartbreak, we serve as an anchor as they develop and mature; thus they are able to venture out and explore the world while feeling secure. When they suffer a crisis and they know we will be there for them, they're better able to manage their feelings and bounce back. 

It’s often a natural, knee-jerk reaction to try too hard to cheer our kids up. When we try to fix things or cajole them out of a funk, we don’t allow our kids the space to learn that negative feelings can be helpful in guiding them to a better place. When we distract them with soothing, we don’t allow them the space to solve their problems.

What our children really need is for us to act as a sounding board, a safe place that they can come and express how they are feeling without resistance or judgment. Usually the best thing to do is to offer a hug and a sympathetic ear, and offer to listen while your child comes up with their own solutions.

3. Confidence

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A friend of mine told me a story about how she was bullied horribly in middle school. She was painfully shy, and she wanted her mother to protect her and to keep her home from school. Despite how difficult it was for her mother to stand back and let her child fend for herself, she sent my friend to school anyway to face her bully every day. Her mother comforted her and listened to her express her feelings about the situation, and her mother voiced her assurance to her daughter that she was capable of solving the problem. When she’d had enough, my friend stood up to her bully and in doing so, solved her own problem and benefitted from an enormous boost of confidence that has stayed with her into adulthood. That couldn’t have happened had her mom stepped in on her behalf, and she’s now grateful that she was given the space and encouragement to handle the situation herself. (I’m in awe of her mother and the level of restraint it took to sit on her hands!) Read tips on how to help your child defend herself against bullying. And of course, use your judgment! All children, bullies, and situations are different. This is just one story, not a blanket suggestion for how to handle every circumstance that involves bullying.

When we over-involve ourselves in our kids’ lives, we strip them of opportunities for individual achievement, which causes them to harbor a general feeling of helplessness and over-dependence. One way to allow your kids to feel confident in their abilities to overcome tough scenarios is to let them figure out how without too much interference.

Likewise, if we do something like help our child too much with a science project, the child doesn’t earn that good grade herself, and thus she’s not able to truly reap the good feelings of competence that come from an achievement.

4. Sociability

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We all come into parenting with our own baggage and views of how the world works. To us, our personal view of the world is just “how it is” and it’s simply “how people are.” But these are only opinions that are based on a very limited set of experiences and circumstances. When we try to steer our kids towards or away from certain friends or we try to color their experiences and their opinions by overlaying our own, we rob them of the ability to learn their own ways of relating to other people that will best serve them.

Your child’s specific personality will operate as the perfect filter to her experience. If your child is cautious and likes to sit back and observe before participating socially, this allows her to have a sense of safety before she enters the fray in her own time. If the parent of such a child is extroverted and feels there’s no need for such caution and pushes a child into a chaotic group setting before the child is ready, she will feel afraid and anything “bad” that happens to her, like being bumped into, will confirm for her that crowds aren’t safe. If in this same scenario we let our child do what comes naturally to her, she will move into the group at her own pace with a feeling of greater security, which will allow her to develop the social skills she needs. In short, don’t push against your child’s nature when it comes to socialization. Let her lead the way.

5. Restraint

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When we steer our kids through childhood with a constant stream “Yes you can do that” or “No you can’t do that” we rob them of the chance to learn how to make wise decisions for themselves. A kid who is allowed to provide himself with some boundaries of his own, rather than having all of his boundaries set for him, is better able to develop self-control that will benefit him later in life. Of course this means allowing your kids to make mistakes, which might mean letting them do things you would prefer they didn’t. But if you can sit back and let him feel the brunt of the natural consequences for making mistakes without always policing him, your child will learn to be internally motivated towards restraint in the future.

If the only reason our kids are allowed or not allowed to act is because of our opinions of them – because we will be proud or disappointed – it keeps our kids stuck in a world where they are only performers on our behalf who aren’t motivated according to their own values. This can lead to a lack of restraint in adulthood when no one is watching. When we trust and allow our kids to function as a product of their own free will, rather than always pressuring them to do things that make their parents happy, our children benefit first hand from the sensation of doing the right thing. This will help them have the foresight in the future to act advantageously.

While these qualities are hard to grasp and assess, they are extremely valuable to our children’s happiness, success and maturity. When we let our kids learn how to make their own decisions and to find their way forward through challenges, we give them the opportunity to emerge as competent and poised adults.

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