If you want your child to be a confident adult, you should let them make mistakes
Are you an over-involved Tiger Mom? A super-protective Helicopter Dad? Or neither, and think parenting the way it was done "back in the day" is the way to go?
These days, many of us would (by older generations, at least) be accused of "over-parenting", and being far too involved and maybe even pushy when it comes to making sure our children do well in life. But isn't the allure that with just a bit more parental elbow grease, we might turn out children with great talents and a bright future ahead?
But according to child-rearing expert and author of “Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success,” Madeline Levine, this might not be the case at all.
"The happiest, most successful children have parents who do not do for them what they are capable of doing, or almost capable of doing," Levine explains. "And this also means their parents not doing things for their children that satisfy their own needs and wished rather than the needs of the child."
Making mistakes is a good thing
Levine explains that the most central task of growing up is to develop a sense of self that is autonomous, confident and generally in accord with reality. Which, to us parents, also means allowing your child to make mistakes along the way.
"If you treat your walking toddler as if she can’t walk, you diminish her confidence and distort reality," she warns. "Ditto nightly “reviews” of homework, repetitive phone calls to “just check if you’re O.K.” and “editing” your child’s college application essay."
According to Levine, once your child is capable of doing something, congratulate yourself on a job well done and move on. "Continued, unnecessary intervention makes your child feel bad about himself."
But surely it's a parents job to help with the things that are beyond our children's reach, no? Isn't that what we are here for?
"Think back to when your toddler learned to walk," explains Levine. "She would take a weaving step or two, collapse and immediately look to you for your reaction. You were present, alert and available to guide if necessary. But you didn’t pick her up every time."
Because – and sure we all know it – only practice makes perfect. "You knew she had to get it wrong many times before she could get it right," reminds Levine, who says that hanging back and allowing our children to make mistakes is one of the greatest challenges of parenting.
"It’s easier when they’re young — tolerating a stumbling toddler is far different from allowing a pre-teenager to meet her friends at the mall. The potential mistakes carry greater risks, and part of being a parent is minimising risk for our children."
Growing their confidence
But mastering the world is an expanding geography for our kids, Levine thinks, and something we must let them do. "For toddlers, it’s the backyard; for preteens, the neighbourhood, for teens the wider world. But it is in the small daily risks — the taller slide, the bike ride around the block, the invitation extended to a new classmate — that growth takes place. In this grey area of just beyond the comfortable is where resilience is born."
More often than not, parents today intervene when anything is up with their children, terrified what not intervening will mean. "To rush in too quickly, to shield them, to deprive them of those challenges is to deprive them of the tools they will need to handle the inevitable demands of life," warns Levine.
Of course you should help when needed, and set limits where they should be set, but according to the expert, your main job is to know your child well enough to make a good call about whether he can manage a particular situation.
"Will you stay up worrying? Probably, but the child’s job is to grow, yours is to control your anxiety, so it doesn’t get in the way of his reasonable moves toward autonomy."
Put on your own oxygen mask first
Those in greater danger of over-parenting and micromanaging their children's lives the most, Levine argues, are parents not entirely happy with how their own life turned out. Unhappy parents are vulnerable to over-parenting for many reason, whether it is to distract themselves from their own lives, or to make sure their children do better than they did.
But there are a lot of reasons why you need to work on your won happiness, and make that a priority, the expert explains. "One of the most important things we do for our children is to present them with a version of adult life that is appealing and worth striving for."