There’s a great NY Times article that’s been circulating the social media circles. Titled, “Raising Successful Children,” it talks about how many parents “overparent” or do too much for their children–much to the child’s detriment.
The article talks about finding that balance between being too lax (permissive) and being too controlling (authoritarian). This idea is nothing new to those of us who have read the Ezzos’ books. That parenting sweet spot is called authoritative parenting, not to be confused with authoritarian parenting. The authoritative parent has no fear of taking a position of authority with the child, yet he makes no attempt to control the child. Here’s how the NY Times describes it:
Decades of studies, many of them by Diana Baumrind, a clinical and developmental psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, have found that the optimal parent is one who is involved and responsive, who sets high expectations but respects her child’s autonomy. These “authoritative parents” appear to hit the sweet spot of parental involvement and generally raise children who do better academically, psychologically and socially than children whose parents are either permissive and less involved, or controlling and more involved.
One of the most important tasks of the authoritative parent is knowing when to step back. As the Ezzos tell us, it’s important that children make mistakes–and learn from them–while the stakes are low. But actually letting our children make mistakes is no easy feat.
Hanging back and allowing 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 preteenager to meet her friends at the mall.
Being able to step back and let them make mistakes is easier when we understand that parenting is not about ensuring our children’s happiness. It’s about guiding them as they grow, and helping them to become confident, capable adults. Those of us who followed Babywise when our kids were babies are familiar with this idea. Letting a baby cry is so, so difficult, but if it teaches the little one how to sleep well and sleep independently, it’s so worth it in the end.
So if children are able to live with mistakes and even failing, why does it drive us crazy? So many parents have said to me, “I can’t stand to see my child unhappy.” If you can’t stand to see your child unhappy, you are in the wrong business. The small challenges that start in infancy (the first whimper that doesn’t bring you running) present the opportunity for “successful failures,” that is, failures your child can live with and grow from. 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, difficult, challenging and sometimes devastating demands of life.
And when we’re too concerned with preventing our children from making mistakes, we need to realize that it’s more about us than it is about them. Doing so can have detrimental effects on a child’s developing sense of self:
When we do things for our children out of our own needs rather than theirs, it forces them to circumvent the most critical task of childhood: to develop a robust sense of self.
If pushing, direction, motivation and reward always come from the outside, the child never has the opportunity to craft an inside. Having tutors prep your anxious 3-year-old for a preschool interview because all your friends’ children are going to this particular school or pushing your exhausted child to take one more advanced-placement course because it will ensure her spot as class valedictorian is not involved parenting but toxic overparenting aimed at meeting the parents’ need for status or affirmation and not the child’s needs.
But how exactly do we find the strength and determination to not overparent?
It’s hard to swim upstream, to resist peer pressure. But we must remember that children thrive best in an environment that is reliable, available, consistent and noninterfering.
Finding that balance is all about creating an environment that allows them to fail, but does so in a way that’s safe. I’m all for shielding a child from negative social influences when they are young and super impressionable. Because of this, I make sure they are around people who will show them a good example. At the same time, I make sure they are given the freedom to make mistakes within their sheltered environment. So when they make a mistake, there will be an attentive adult to call attention to the child’s mistake and teach him better alternatives.
Also, I have learned from the Ezzos that the difficult things that are required of parents are not done in spite of the child or the circumstances, but because of them. We maintain healthy marriages not despite parenting demands, but because of them. We don’t put the child in the center of the family despite the child, but because of him. In the same way, we let the child make mistakes and resist overparenting, not despite the child but because of him. All of these difficult tasks that some would say are done selfishly, are in fact, done to provide a healthy, stable foundation for the child.
So if you see signs of overparenting in yourself, don’t be afraid to create a sheltered environment, but know when to step back. Lay the foundation, and then step back and let the child grow.