Handing your toddler a pair of pants and watching her attempt to put them on can be excruciating. Sweet? Yes. Hilarious? Very. In most cases, however, it hurts to see our kids struggle with the simplest of tasks. Failure is especially hard to witness when their sticky little faces scrunch up in frustration. Every parental instinct screams silently to do it for them, so they don’t experience sadness in defeat. Those of us tolerant enough, at first, to wait for your determined child to figure out the inner workings of a pant leg can easily be pushed over the edge of patience after just ten minutes with no results. The urge then to reach over and immediately assist your little one with a serene “Mommy will do it” is so overwhelming that it can quickly become the norm.
The term “helicopter mom” has been around for decades, and in recent years, experienced quite a resurgence among parenting circles. The idea of controlling your child’s every move, either for the sake of convenience, or to avoid failure, or whatever the motivation, is one that might be completely good intentioned in theory but can often have results that are less than ideal. No parent wishes for a helpless, incompetent tween who can’t entertain themselves without help from others. There isn’t a mother or father around who gazes adoringly at their angelic newborn and dreams of the day he or she whines at them to brush their hair or apply their sunscreen. This, however, is but a taste of what can happen when parents don’t give young children the chance to accomplish things on their own early on.
As first time parents, we thought we were doing what parents are supposed to do by “helping” our then 3-year-old daughter with all of her daily tasks. We brushed her teeth, got her dressed, brushed her hair, and put on her shoes without ever stopping to give her a chance to try herself. Then we wondered, a couple of years later, why she broke down crying when asked to pick out her own clothes or why she struggled with confidence in tying her shoes.
My husband and I slowly began to realize that we were not doing her, or us for that matter, any favors by applying sunscreen for her or by making sure she had her homework packed away in her school bag each morning. We saw clearly for the first time that self-esteem comes from trying, failing, and trying again. It was our job to provide her with the tools to understand that she can be self-sufficient in ways she didn’t realize.
Children are definitely wired certain ways right out of the birth canal, so there will be those kids that are seeking independence with their first breath. Toddlers are naturally curious little sponges that learn confidence by learning to complete the tiniest of tasks on their own. When our second child came along a few years later, we learned to not swoop in every time she needed help. We took deep breaths and waited with all the self-restraint we could muster as she slowly, but surely, figured out how to put on her own shirt. We sat there with clenched smiles, pretending that we weren’t at all invested
in the outcome, as she took the same sock on and off again 5 times in a row. We didn’t even correct her when she put her pajamas on backwards because she was so proud that she did it “all by herself.”
The greatest gift we can give our kids is freedom and space to explore their world at their own pace, as much as possible. These days, both girls are simultaneously learning what it feels like to own their independence, and we, as parents, are learning what it’s like to let them try.