Sometimes, in never wanting to see our kids struggle, we end up holding them back. We think we are helping them, but really were just teaching them to be whiny, dependent people who have no capacity to work around a problem and no confidence to try.
I like to consider myself a good mom. My children get hot breakfast, because that’s what they like. I drive them to school if they are late. I deliver my son’s viola to the office when he forgets it. I lay clothes out, do laundry, cheer at games, drive kids to practice, offer moral support and lots of love, help with homework and try my best ( though most often fail) to keep the house tidy so that they can live in a clean environment.
Mother of year, right? Not so fast.
My ten-year old does not know how to cut his food and has no desire to try. He can play the drums like some sort of wizard, willing all four limbs to do something different at the same time, but put a knife in his hand and he looks like the most uncoordinated soul on this planet.
So, I do it for him. It certainly is easier than listening to him grumble and complain and, I am his mother, I want to help him. Except, I’m not helping at all, instead, all I’m helping my kids to do is learn that they can do nothing for themselves, which had I not had a third child, might not have been so obvious to me. Without seeing what my daughter can do, I might still be operating under the premise that the more I do for them, the better I make their lives, and the better off they will be.
It was never as apparent as last Tuesday, when my five-year old, excited to try ice skating for the first time, ran to the bench, changed out of her short socks into knee socks and began trying to put her skates on all by herself. She couldn’t quite manage but she tried. While her peers were complaining to the moms stuffing their feet into narrow skates, my daughter sat patiently while I laced her up. When I asked her how they were, she said, “Great!” jumped up and started running on the rubber, testing out her new-found love. She didn’t wait for me to enter the rink before she started and she exhibited much bravery for getting on an icy surface with blades strapped to her feet. By the end of the first lesson, she was the only one skating. She wasn’t afraid of failing and so she learned to succeed.
I realize that my daughter is athletic. She rode a two-wheeler the day she turned four and she has been successfully using a razor scooter for a little longer than that, but her athleticism is not what I am praising, because I guarantee you that at five years old, my sons would have been one of those children who was complaining. It’s her confidence and courage that I admire. Confidence and courage that she got not from me doing everything for her, but confidence and courage that she learned in doing for herself.
I’ve been observing her for a while (so I’m not sure why it’s taken me so long to come around). The first time it really became apparent to me that perhaps I was being scammed by my sons was when my daughter was two. I was helping my kids get ready so that they could go outside and play. While my five-year old was flopping on the floor complaining he couldn’t get his shoes on, my two-year old daughter had put her shoes on her feet, velcroed them, and was on her way out. It was a real eye opener. My children could do much more than I thought they could.
My daughter also started dressing herself at an early age. The results weren’t always pretty, especially when she was going through her boy sock phase, but I tried my best not to sweat it, and even praised her for her efforts (I talk more about it here). Now, when I tell everyone to get ready, she somehow manages to make it happen. Her outfit may not match, her socks may be colorful, but she’s proud and so am I. In the meantime, her brothers still have days when they scream, “I don’t have any sweatpants!” or “I don’t know what to wear!” because it’s not on top in the drawer, or they’re just too lazy to look. Then, they go for the guilt, “You’re not helping me!” This usually happens ten minutes before it’s time to get out the door.
I wish I could tell you that my daughter is the way she is because of my awesome parenting skills, but in truth, it’s precisely what I have NOT done for her, that has made her so determined. I believe my daughter has more confidence and less fear because she has learned to do for herself without criticism and usually with praise, as in “Way to get your shoes on big girl!” She’s not afraid to try, and so she usually succeeds.
Unconsciously, I’ve treated her differently than my sons, and it’s been to her benefit. Because my daughter rarely has my undivided attention or energy, she’s realized that, most times, if she wants to make something happen, she needs to make it happen, because if she doesn’t want to put your snow clothes on and I’m busy, then she doesn’t get to go outside. So, she dresses herself.
So, lately, I’ve been committing to doing less for my boys, which, admittedly hasn’t gone so well. My oldest has a hard time finding anything, he is the quintessential absent-minded professor, but yet, I can’t help but wonder if he knew we wouldn’t all go looking when he’s lost his iPod, socks, forgets his viola, can’t find his boots, snow pants, hats, gloves, homework, library books, DS, etc., he’d take more notice. And so, the other day, when he wanted to go sledding, I simply refused to help him find his snow pants. I told him where he could find them, on the hooks by the door. But, because they were buried under jackets, he just couldn’t find them, i.e., refused to look because it involved moving things. I held firm, telling him if he couldn’t find them, he couldn’t go sledding, and after much indignation, a meltdown, and cries that he was unloved, he managed to find the snow pants.
As for the middle one, well, he’s shown flashes of brilliance on and off since he came into this world, regressing when his sister was born out of the pure need for proof that I loved him. But I’ve stopped falling for all that. He, unlike his older brother, does know how to make and cut waffles, and will do it on occasion. He can also now get his own water glasses down from the cabinet, something I’ve insisted on since realizing that he can traverse any counter and scale any height to find hidden candy. He’s a boy who shows what he can do when something is important to him. When he can’t find his pants, I remind him that he managed to lay out his whole outfit the night before his winter concert, unprompted by me, because it was important to him. He was also up at four a.m., dressed and ready for the day, but that’s another story.
So, while I’m not quite at, and probably never will be, the “Hey, kids, set your alarms, make your sandwiches and don’t wake me up. See you after school,” kind of mom (they’ll have to figure that out in college), I’ll keep taking baby steps towards pushing the birds out of the nest, because without a little push, how will they ever learn to fly.