Why not helping helps our children

Do you ever help your toddlers to climb on a frame, sit on a slide etc. or do you ever help your child to do homework? Well, try not to do that… Sometimes, not helping our children helps them more than we can imagine.

I remember the first time I went to a ludoteca (a small indoor playground, for toddlers) in Florence with my son. He was about 10 months old and crawled around the place, trying to climb on a high mattress. I was going to stand up from my cosy sofa to reach him on time to catch his (eventual) fall, when one of the ladies there told me something that changed my life as mum: „Don’t help him climb on there, he’ll get there on his own. And if your child can climb on it, he will also know how to get down again. He will not fall down, unless someone distracts him.“

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Ever since, I only took care that he wasn’t disturbed and just watched him during his climbing adventures. He did reach the top of this mattress, as he reached many more goals after that. I didn’t want him to learn to be on top of a ladder, I wanted him to learn how to climb it.

Did he ever fall? Oh yes, he did. He bumped his head, got bruises etc. but there was always someone who gave him a hug, a plaster or a coldpack. And the most important thing: he did stand up again.

The only help I gave my children was to observe them from a safe distance, in order to help when they failed in their attempts. Of course they got frustrated when they didn’t reach something they were simply too small to, but they learned that this is not the end of the world.

I want them to feel capable of making their own decisions, developing their own skills, taking their own risks, and coping with their own feelings“ : in her very inspiring article „Please don’t help my kids“, Kate Bassford Baker explains, why she doesn’t want other parents to help her children. She writes about the frustration of a mum who wants her children to do their own experiences and to learn to be indipendent, while other parents feel that they have to help her children…

What I would like to point out in this post is that sometimes, not helping is more helpful for our children.

Our children need to learn the consequence of the choices they make

Once our children have gained some experience and know what they are able to do and what is more difficult for them, they will also be able to learn the consequences of their choices. I’m not saying that we have to allow our childern to do freeclimbing or bungeejumping at an early age without any help. No, everything should be teached and learned within a comfort zone. And it should also be in a safe context, where our child can’t get seriously hurt.

Not helping our children all the time, helps them to become more indipendend, more confident and even more balanced. Those who know me and who have read some other of my posts about parenting, know that I am a „Love and Logic“ parent. Foster Cline and Jim Fay did coin the term of „Helicopter parents“, who, like helicopters, hover overhead. They do everything for their children, they overprotect them. Well, a helicopter parent doesn’t help his child to grow confidence and to become indipendent. Jessica Lahey’s article abot „Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail“ gives a very interesting insight into the effect that overprotecting parents have on their children.

Don’t we all strive to have responsible and independent children?

While it’s important to perceive the needs and issues of our children during their first months, parents should know that at a very early stage they already can let them the chance to make their own experiences and solve their own problems.

It starts with letting the babies roll over, then crawl, stand up etc. by themselves. And later, at school, children need to learn to take responsibility and to deal with the natural consequences of their actions.

„And I don’t know about you, but I’d rather help them learn the skills they’ll need to navigate them now, while a misstep means a bumped head or scraped knee that can be healed with a kiss, while the most difficult of hills can be conquered by chanting, “I think I can, I think I can”, and while those 15 whole feet between us still feels, to them, like I’m much too far away.“ (Kate Bassford Baker)

Our children need to fail, to make mistakes. It’s better to teach them how to deal with „little“ problems while they’re young, because the older they get, the bigger the problems become.

What message are we giving a 8 year old if we bring the lunch to school that he forgot to pack in the morning? That there will always be someone who comes to his rescue. Well, a child will not die if he doesn’t eat his lunch for once. And the same applies to homework, PE gear etc. If children learn to own their own problems, they will naturally become more responsible.

So, if we let our children fail on the little day to day things, they will learn to cope with bigger challenges and failures later on in their lives. And they will become more firm in facing their challenges.

Challenges have the power to transform (the children) into

resourceful, competent, and confident adults“.

Please read also this very insightful post from Jaclyn: True Attachment Parenting vs. Helicopter Parenting

17 replies »

  1. Good article, and a very important one! I have also read how ot helping is better thank not helping because it fosters independence and try to stick to this rule. However, it is sometimes hard to figure out when your child needs help and when they don’t. This balance is very hard for me given that while I am all about helping children become more independent, I also want them to know that they will receive the help they need and it that way they may be more likely to help others. Another thing is that while independence is important, I would also like my children to be able to ask for help if they need it. So often I was told to be independent and self-suffiecient when I needed help (it’s just you don’t always know when your child needs help) that I don’t want it to happen to my chidlren. I also want them to know that they will find people in their lives who they can count on.
    So many aspects to consider, so many things to take into account. Also, there is help that helps and help that doesn’t- but I fully agree with your points.

  2. Yes, Olga, I know that it’s quite a challenge to recognize the moments when we actually have to help. I always told my children to tell me if they wanted me to help and this worked for 80% of the time. As parents we also have to learn that our children grow, gain experience and maybe today they don’t need our help on things they needed it a week ago. Asking for help is something they have to learn alongside with becoming indipendent. I’m not saying that we don’t have to help them, ever, no. If we feel that our child needs more than a positive reinforcement, we have to help. I wouldn’t let my child get hurt because I don’t help him in a situation where he can’t help himself and does ask for help! – The “help” I’m talking about here is the help some parents give to their children without even giving them the chance to try it on their own, or because they simply don’t want to waist time to let them do it in their own paste, their own way etc. – You mention a very important point when you say that you don’t want your children to experience not getting help when they need it. I guess this fear could lead you to overprotect them, but I’m sure, knowing you, that you won’t let this happen. I think the most important thing is really to lean back from time to time and “let them go” (maybe on a leach 😉 while they are small).

  3. Yes, that’s a good point! I also try to wait until they do it themselves, and only then I try to help. I hope I’m not overprotecting them although I may have the tendency to doing that 🙂 One point: it is not always easy to guess when they need help (sometimes they wouldn’t tell you, or they’re not able to communicate their need for help). Sometimes, the children are much more independent with strangers and other people than with their parents- maybe because they feel that while the world expects them to do all by themselves, at home they can feel more like children… abut I loved this important blog post because it reminds me that children are really able to manage a lot on their own if not interrupted.

  4. Yes, Olga, our “little ones” are pretty good in managing their things! They are more indipendent with strangers and other people and that’s good. It’s also important that they feel more relaxed and protected – as for getting help when they need – at home. But sometimes home becomes too easy and the gap between the “real world” and the world at home is too big for them to adapt. However, this would be a topic for another post 😉

  5. Thanks very much for this stimulating article. After reading this I went to a playground with my son and I was much more aware of not helping him do stuff and letting him figure it all out for himself.

    As an English language teacher, I encourage my students to experiment with their language in the hope that they fail, because when they make a mistake we have the opportunity to learn from it. The key, though, is making them aware of their mistake and using that as a catalyst for learning.

    I hope this is what I do with my son. Let him fail, but then offer some sort of guidance for how not to fail in the future.

    However, like European Mama said, it is all very difficult to get the balance right and I am sure that I fail to achieve this balance as often as I get it just right.. I just hope that I can learn from my own parenting mistakes.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Stephen! I’m glad this post helped you a bit. I’m teaching my son German and always hope that he fails too, not because I’m a mean mum, but because I want him to learn from his mistakes.– But I think that with our own children we need to step back even more than with our other students, as we’re much more involved emotionally. But on the other hand, aren’t we always “teachers” for our chidren? We guide them, help them discover new things and explain the world to them. – I think that it’s very difficult, if not impossible to find a balance. Let’s say, if one day we think we found it, the day after we might have lost it again… As parents we are entitled to make mistakes. And our children should se us fail. By making mistakes and learning from our failures, we are the best role model for our children.

  6. So thought-provoking! Both of my kids (10 & 12) have recently failed at auditions for parts in plays that they thought they would easily get. They reacted very differently, but neither was happy. I had to teach them that they have to decide if desire for the thing is bigger than the pain of rejection. Me, when I was a kid, failing was the worst, so I didn’t try some things because I might fail.

    Learning languages is a great way for me to fail and succeed. I fail at my language, then learn and make progress. My kids laugh at how I talk to strangers and evoke puzzled looks–but they see what it means to be curious and ready to laugh at myself and have a good time.

    • Thank you so much for your comment. I observe the same difference with my children. Sometimes they react very emotionally and are upset when they fail, and other times they don’t even seem to care. What you say about teaching them “to decide if desire for the thing is bigger than the pain of rejection” is very wise! I’ll try this with my kids too. Thanks! I want that my kids learn that failure is an important part of the learning process and it’s natural and even necessary to fail in order to learn and to succeed.

  7. Thank you so much for this inspiring post! One of the most important ways we ‘help’ our children is to be good role models…they need to see how WE react when we fail or when things don’t go the way we had hoped. When they watch us think things through, make good choices, problem solve, be good sports and try, try again if we fail…then they will expect to do the same for themselves. 🙂
    I love your parenting attitude…your little one is fortunate indeed!

    • Thank you very much, Viviane! Your comment means very much to me. 🙂 – Yes, we are the role models for our children for almost everything and should never forget this, even not when they are teenagers or older…

  8. I love this post. I have a four-month-old son and I am already seeing the beginnings of this in new parents around me. It is so hard for us to let go, to let our children fail, but it is absolutely vital to their psychological development. I am in the field of clinical psychology and have seen the results of helicopter parents… I have also seen the results of neglectful parents. Children need to learn the power of relationship but also of their own autonomy. It’s key that we allow them to fail in ways that are developmentally appropriate and to coddle them as appropriate… such a fine line. I just wrote a post about Margaret Mahler’s theory of psychological development and I hope that it will help others as it has helped me. Understanding our children’s psychological development helps us to navigate through the murky waters of parenthood.
    I loved to hear you say that you had a warm hug for your child every time they did fall. I think that is a beautiful illustration of being a balanced parent. Such a difficult task, but so vital to this future generation.

  9. Thank you so much, Jaclyn, for stopping by and for your very insightful comment! I’ve read your post and will refer to it at the end of mine. It’s can be difficult to let our children go, but if we observe them very carefully and understand the messages they send us, take them seriously, we will not miss the moments where they make one (or more) step forward in their development. I think one important thing to remember at every single moment they move a bit more away from us, is that they will still always need our reinforcement. Sometimes a smile is enough, other times they need a hug or more. It’s really important that they feel that we’ll be there, no matter what. Especially when they fail, because failure is not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strenght: they’ve tried and they will try again.

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