You just can’t help it. It’s instinctive to butt into a child’s life even though you’re trying to pave a smooth road through childhood. Whether wanting to help him find a better way to make friends or succeed in school, perfect his soccer skills or his bed-making technique, parents interject themselves into their children’s lives.
There are moments when running this type of interference may seem helpful, but experts suggest taking a time-out before jumping in.
Just as you can’t tie his shoes laces throughout adolescence, you won’t always be with him to negotiate squabbles with friends or take notes in class. “Although we often want to, parents just can’t hover in their world,” says Dr Susan Kuczmarski, EdD. “Children need space and trust to make choices, take responsibility for the good and bad days of their life, and learn that life goes on even when they don’t get what they want, are hurt, or failed.”
While that sounds like obvious and practical advice, how easy is it to incorporate in your parenting plan? What mistakes should you allow your child to make? When should you interfere and when should you remain a silent observer? What is the difference between interfering with his grades and protecting his academic interests?
What happens when we hover?
Helicopter or hovering parenting emanates from a place of concern and caring. Thought of as a bad instinct, it is actually too much of a good instinct. “Even though it’s usually done with the best of intentions or in the name of ‘nurturing’, hovering can actually stunt a child’s emotional growth,” Kuczmarski adds.
Kuczmarski has a strong caution for overly involved parents. “Parents need to step back from the front lines of their child’s life or risk crippling the child emotionally and socially.”
Since birth you’ve been making decisions for your child and experts say it’s as important to let go of some of the control as it is to love. “Despite the best of intentions, helicopter parents give their children the implied message that the child can’t make decisions without them,” says Kuczmarski, who conducts workshops for parents and educators and has researched how children learn social skills and become leaders.
What many children who have been hovered over end up interpreting is that they are not capable of handling new situations on their own and that their parents don’t have faith in their abilities. Kuczmarski notes, “Going through adolescence and into adulthood feeling unable to make decisions or without confidence in his decisions can be detrimental for a child.”
Finding another way
What is the alternative to hovering? Dr George Wiedmaier, parenting outreach director for Focus on the Family says, “It is important to allow children to make mistakes, but it is also important not to fix all of them.” When faced with the urge to intervene in a play date that’s not blossoming or to confront a teacher regarding a book report grade, take a moment to assess the situation. Is your child in distress? Asking for your help or guidance? Is this a situation he’s capable of addressing on his own?
Before stepping in or taking over a situation, remind yourself that when your child makes mistakes it creates learning opportunities. “And learning from mistakes is all part of growing up and becoming a responsible teen and adult,” says Wiedmaier.
Allowing children to occasionally take control of the reigns sends the message “I trust you to handle this situation.” “When we give children ‘a checkbook of life’ and let them balance it, we’ve entered a powerful zone of real life learning,” Wiedmaier notes.
“It is important to understand the benefit of not hovering does not come directly from allowing children to make mistakes,” Adam Weinstein, executive director of the American Camp Association-New York adds, “The benefit comes from allowing children to problem solve and make decisions.”
Problem solving and decision making skills, like any other skills, are learned through practice. Let your children build and practice their problem solving muscles in controlled environments such as play dates with set end times or by discussing a grade in a meeting with his teacher that you helped arrange.
Instill the importance and confidence to negotiate the experiences in his life in order for him to know how to handles conflicts that may arise throughout his life. “When it’s tough to resist butting in, try smiles and humor instead of hovering,” says Kuczmarski “You might even experiment with treating your child as if he were someone else’s to gain a clear perspective of how much you should interject in the situation and relate to him with more objectivity and lightheartedness.”
Instead of solving a problem for your child, compromise with him when conflicts occur. And, when your child demonstrates mature behavior, encourage it. By slowly reducing the amount that you hover over him, you’ll both be comfortable swapping your “parent-to-child” relationship for a “person-to-person” relationship.