Published on February 27, 2019

There appears to be two trends in how parents relate to their children. The first is mounting parental anxiety. Parents are expressing worry that they are missing something, or doing something wrong, when it comes to their child’s wellbeing and future success. Whether it’s nutrition, academic performance, mental and emotional wellness, social skills, or other critical areas, parents often say they fear that they may be messing their child up, either by omission or commission.

illustration child-parent swing

This anxiety seems ubiquitous. It is also highly personal, based on a combination of a child’s weaknesses and struggles and a parent’s hopes, goals and concerns about that child’s future. For example, educators often hear parents worry that a child will not be driven and organised enough to succeed in challenging academic environments after high school. They worry that a child might have difficulty finding employment, maintaining friendships or having long-term relationships. Or, it might be smaller: fears that the child will never remember to get required supplies together, that they will forever be losing important things. Sometimes it’s not specific — there’s just worry. Meanwhile, parents who are not necessarily anxious or worried sometimes hear their peers and wonder if perhaps they should be, which then causes worry.


The storms of adolescence

To be sure, if you look at a child, especially during adolescence, there could be cause for concern. Adolescents can be moody or explosive. They often experience, or cause, social turmoil and forget everything from gym clothes to major assignments. But the good news is that adolescence is usually self-correcting. With time, experience and maturity, things generally get better. A student who gets enough bad grades usually figures out how to do better. Someone with social problems often either comes to understand things they may change, or they find different friends. A disorganised student will eventually figure out how to get organised.

The bad news is that this self-correction only happens after it has become the student’s problem.

This in turn happens when they have experienced consequences — which are life’s way of teaching someone not to do something, or to do it differently.


Learning their own lessons

It’s ironic that, even as they worry about messing their kids up, so many well-meaning parents spend considerable time and energy keeping their kids from experiencing the consequences of their actions.

‘Helicopter’ parents prevent children from experiencing the consequences of their actions by intervening with teachers and coaches to advocate for a specific outcome, even when it’s not a serious or long-lasting situation. Parents might deliver assignments, forgotten lunches or equipment to school. They might try to neutralise disciplinary outcomes or get rules and policies waived. They get involved in peer conflicts and manage the social calendar.

If we are worried about our children being prepared to be happy and successful in life, one of the best things we can do is to stop insulating, cushioning and intervening.

Of course, parents can’t let go completely. We have a critical role, guiding and advising. We can provide perspective or advice and help them brainstorm solutions to problems. We do this, incidentally, based on what we have learned through our own experience — often from consequences we experienced.

There might be times when a child is truly in danger. Power imbalances sometimes require parents to step in. But these instances ought to be the exception.

If a parent spends more energy trying to either prevent or alter consequences than they do coaching, guiding and reflecting, that’s a sign that something is wrong. If we treat every situation as mission critical, we are probably off base.

student with parent looking worried

Useful questions

It’s admittedly hard to recognise and fix this but we can ask ourselves a few questions.

  1. When was the last time my child experienced a negative consequence based on choices they made?
  2. When my child has problems, do I help coach them through it or do I try to fix it?
  3. How often have I contacted teachers, coaches or others to try to ensure or protest a particular, non-urgent outcome?

If you suspect you are doing a lot of intervening, talk to a seasoned parent: a family member, a good friend or a trusted teacher. Ask them for candid feedback.

Positive outcomes

The wonderful thing about allowing kids to experience consequences is that it allows them to be taught far in excess of our own wisdom or skill.

Most children are grow up and leave home to pursue productive and happy lives. They will have their serious and minor ups and downs. Happily, parents don’t have to have all the answers, because all the experiences they have allow our kids to figure things out for themselves as they go.

Life presents each child with an intensive, personalised, highly effective curriculum.

Be grateful for all they are learning.


Reference: Principals’ Digests Newsletter Volume 25, Number 11. Acknowledgment: Braden Bell