When children encounter difficulty or disappointment, parents are sometimes tempted to try to rescue their children.
They might rush to school to deliver a forgotten homework assignment, call the school to excuse a skipped class, or allow a child to stay home to avoid a challenging test.
But such interventions, while well-intentioned, can actually deprive children of essential opportunities to build resilience, self-advocacy, and independence.
Every situation and every child is different, of course. But, based on my experience working with students and parents, I offer these guidelines:
Adversity teaches life lessons
When children face and overcome setbacks on their own, they learn to solve problems, to make adjustments, and to stand up for themselves. They develop flexibility, persistence, and courage.
When children make mistakes, meaningful and reasonable consequences can work wonders. The student who earns a low grade for missed homework learns to make a checklist of items to bring to school. The student who receives a Saturday detention for missing class will suddenly achieve perfect attendance. The unprepared student who takes the test as scheduled will start studying earlier next time –and might even do much better on the test than he expected!
But when parents intervene in such situations, they’re actually sending the child this message: “You’re not capable of handling this yourself; you still need our help.”Such over-parenting undercuts a child’s sense of self-worth and self-confidence.
Take the long view
When parents hear negative news, whether it’s a disappointing grade, a social snub, a disciplinary penalty or an athletic frustration, their initial reaction is often to lash out at either the child or the school or both.
This response is normal and understandable. It’s very hard to see your child in pain, whether it’s caused by a skinned knee or a bad grade.
But it’s also important to maintain perspective and to ask what your child can learn from this experience that will help him or her to resolve similar situations in the future.
It’s easy to fix things for your child now. It’s much harder to step back for a while and allow the child to grow wiser and stronger by solving problems independently.
Discuss the problem with your child
Allowing a child to work through a difficult situation independently doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t talk to him or her about it. Listen carefully to your child’s description of the situation and then help him or her to identify needed changes, to develop new strategies, and to find new ways of tackling challenges.
During this process, remember that teachers, advisors, counselors, and coaches will also be providing encouragement, support, and resources to help your child respond to adversity with thoughtfulness, optimism, and ingenuity.
Assess the stakes
When deciding whether to intervene, consider the level of adversity being faced by your child. If it’s a low-stakes infraction, such as forgotten homework, a missed class, or a low grade, let the child address the problem without your intervention.
But when there’s evidence of serious academic or behavioral difficulties, or of social exclusion, bullying or harassment, parents should step in right away.
Consider these resources
For parents interested in further discussions of these issues, I highly recommend two recent books:
The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn To Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed by Jessica Lahey, and Permission To Parent: How To Raise Your Child With Love and Limits by Robin Berman.