I remember the story of a boy watching a butterfly slowly free himself from its cocoon. The boy felt pity as he watched the butterfly struggle to get out the cramped wrappings of transformation. He feared the butterfly was not making progress quickly enough. He feared the butterfly might hurt himself in the struggle. So, to be helpful, the boy got some scissors, cut the cocoon open, and freed the butterfly. Unfortunately, the butterfly did not fly away in gratitude. He fell to the ground with small, shriveled wings. The butterfly’s wings never opened up and he never flew. He was confined to crawling on the ground for the rest of his short life. The butterfly needed the struggle to develop his wings for flight and prepare his body for life outside the cocoon. I don’t know if the story is true or even realistic (I did find a rendition of it at Struggle is Good! I Want to Fly!), but it does make an important point. Sometimes we need to struggle and take risks to grow.
Did you know that recent research suggests that one contributor to the increase in children suffering with anxiety is overprotective parenting? In a sense, we have become so protective of our children…so careful to prevent their risk, their frustration, their potential harm…that we have prevented them from the very experience they need to grow confident and independent. I learned many important lessons as a child in somewhat risky situations, lessons that helped me build confidence, know my limits, and exercise healthy caution.
- I learned the limits of speed riding my bicycle.
- I learned the dangers of playing with fire from a paper towel…and making smores.
- I learned important lessons about height while climbing trees and small “cliffs” near my house (btw-these “cliffs” look small when I see them as an adult).
- I learned the need for caution when jumping over things while jumping over fallen trees.
- I learned the potential for hurting someone and being hurt by playing “pick-up games” of football.
- I learned to use caution cutting grass by cutting grass and experiencing some “flying debris.”
We learn our capabilities and the limits of those capabilities when we take small risks during our play as children. Our children need the opportunity to play and engage in some independent activities, even ones that carry risk, so they can grow and learn about their capabilities and limits. Of course, we will provide appropriate levels of protection so those risks are age appropriate and not overly dangerous. Even so, they will get bruises, cuts, and scratches along the way. They may experience frustrations and even cry about some of those frustrations. And, they will learn. They will grow. They will become independent. So…how can you begin to allow your child, your butterfly, to emerge from their cocoon and become more independent over the next week?
Several years ago, I watched a 6-year-old leaping up and down in an attempt to grab a bar and hold onto it while sliding across a low hanging beam. She had done it several times, but had now grown tired. So, she jumped and missed the bar several times. Each time she missed, she would grunt and groan…louder and louder with each failed attempt. Her father (I knew the family) walked over and offered to lift her up to grab the bar. She refused and continued to try on her own. With each attempt, her groans grew more frustrated and her uncle (who was also at the park) grew more frustrated. “Would you just help her already?” the uncle yelled from where he sat talking to another girl. But, the father did not help. He simply stood next to his daughter and offered as much support as she wanted. Within moments, the 6-year-old’s persistence paid off. She caught the bar and slid across the beam… smiling from ear to ear at her accomplishment.
On the surface this looks like a child playing in the park. Her father and uncle stood nearby: one grew increasingly frustrated and wanted to step in to solve the dilemma while the other just stood idly by offering his help if desired. But, look again. On a deeper level, this incident epitomizes the development of competence. Competence is rooted in the experience of facing and mastering challenges. It necessitates that parents learn to balance when to get out of their child’s way while she persists in some task and when to join in and solve the problem. Consider what this father communicated to his child by allowing her to persist and simply offering help instead of intruding with assistance:
· “You can decide if you want help. You are wise enough to make that decision. You are competent to decide.”
· “You can solve this problem and I trust your ability to do so. You are competent to do it.”
Many times parents simply have to get out of the way so a child can gain competence. We have to allow our children to figure out how to finish their own projects, completing it to their own specifications. When we step in to figure it out for them, we communicate that we do not believe in their wisdom, their creativity, or their capabilities. We save them from learning the benefit of persistence. We even teach them that they do not have to work for success, Mom and Dad will fix it instead. Our children come to believe that our actions prove they lack wisdom, creativity, and ability. They come to believe that failure is inevitable. They learn that they lack competence; that they are incompetent. That is not what we want our children to learn, but when we step in that is what we teach them. It can be difficult not step in, to let them struggle instead. Seeing our children struggling in frustration sounds our internal alarm. The “mother bear” or “protector of the house” moves in to save and protect. We have the experience that can help, the ability to make an impact, the power to make it easier for them. We can be our child’s hero. Unfortunately, acting on that impulse, becoming the hero, often leads to children who have no personal competence and a great dependency on their parents.
So, step aside. A true hero knows when to help and when to watch. Let your child figure it out. Let them struggle through the task. Even allow them to fail and, through that failure, learn how to get up, dust off, and “get back on the horse.” Let them learn that they have competence. Even more, let them learn that they are competent.
I reread the story of the Prodigal Son the other day. You might recall the story…a son asks his father for his inheritance. This loving father gives his son his inheritance, no questions asked. The son leaves home and blows the whole thing on wasteful living. He ends up broke, without friends, and working one of the lowliest, dirtiest jobs possible. Of course, he eventually “comes to his senses” and returns home expecting to become a servant in his father’s house. Instead, he finds a compassionate, gracious father who restores his status and position in the family. I have always loved contemplating the father’s loving response when the prodigal returns home. However, this time I was captivated by the father’s actions during the prodigal son’s time away. Think about it. The prodigal son’s father may have known how his son wasted his money. He likely knew that his son was lonely, broke, working in a pig pen, and longing to eat the pig’s food.
At that point, the father had a choice. He could have sent his son some money. I’m sure he hated to see his son suffer. Like most parents, he probably hated knowing that his son suffer from an extreme need that he had the resources to relieve. In response, the father of the prodigal son could have sent his son a sum of money with a note attached—”Son, I know that times are hard so I sent you some money to help make ends meet. You are always welcome home.” What do you think the son would have done if he had received money from his father? Most likely, he would have wasted that money on “crazy living,” just like he did with the inheritance. The father’s bail out would have robbed his son of the opportunity to learn from his mistakes. This temporary relief would have led to more long-term suffering. On a lesser note, the father would have lost more money. More significantly, the father would have to watch his son continue to spiral out of control and suffer the consequences of bad choices.
Of course, the father could have simply put up with his son’s situation. He could have endured his son’s misbehavior and grumbled to himself about how agitated he was by his son’s behavior. He might have become more and more frustrated as his son continued to waste money and spiral into bankruptcy. He could have allowed his bitterness to grow as he contemplated how his son had “taken advantage” of his kindness and generosity. When his son finally did return home, he could have waited at the top of the driveway—arms folded, tapping his foot; and, when his son confessed his wrong-doing and apologized, the father could have pounced. He could have released all that pent up anger and frustration, unleashing a torrent of “I told you so’s” on his son. He would be justified in yelling, lecturing…and maybe even calling out a few names. Unfortunately, his son would have quit listening. Once again, the father would have robbed his son of any opportunity to learn from his mistakes. His son would turn his focus onto his father’s behavior…”This is why I left in the first place;” “all he ever does is yell at me;” “I can never satisfy him;” “I don’t know why I ever came back I the first place.” In the midst of all this, the son would never consider his own inappropriate misbehavior. By redirecting the son’s focus from his own misbehavior to the father’s emotional pouncing, the father would have successfully robbed his son of the opportunity to learn. His son may have even turned around and returned to the pig pen while the father continued to lecture and yell.
This father, on the other hand, allowed his son to suffer the consequences of his misbehavior. This father showed great wisdom. He allowed his son to suffer for his misbehavior. He did not step in to save the son from painful consequences. He did not lecture, yell, and scold. He simply witnessed the consequences, allowed the suffering, and waited for his son to realize the pain of his misbehavior. He may have empathized with that suffering, but he did not bail him out. He held onto the faith that his son would learn from his mistakes and the consequences of that mistake. He trusted his son to learn…and allowed him the time to do so. As a result, this son learned a valuable lesson about choices and consequences. He learned even more about the strength of his father’s love and acceptance.
We face similar choices with our children every day. Sometimes it is best to let our children experience the pain and discomfort of their bad choices, even when our heart aches to watch them suffer. If we bail ’em out, they will never learn. If we pounce on them with yelling, lecturing, and scolding, they will never learn. But, if we let ’em suffer now and again, they will learn a valuable lesson about behavior, love, acceptance, and obedience.
How to Train Your
Dragon (oops, I mean) Children
Maybe,” [Old Wrinkly] said, “you can train a dragon better by talking to it than by yelling at it.”
“That’s sweet,” said Hiccup, “and a very touching thought. However…from what I know about dragons…I should say that yelling was a pretty good method.”
“But it has its limitations, doesn’t it?” Old Wrinkly pointed out.
–From How to Train Your Dragon, by Cressida Cowell
Indeed it does; yelling does have its limitations. Yelling at children simply “scrambles their brain.” Young children cannot think clearly while being yelled at. If they cannot think clearly, they cannot learn the positive behaviors we desire. Teens, on the other hand, simply shut the yeller out. Their focus quickly shifts to “how unjust” it is to be yelled at, how “they always yell at me,” or “they expect me to control my temper but…” The teen becomes more focused on our yelling behavior than the misbehavior that led to the yelling. They focus on the behavior of the one yelling and totally disregard their own inappropriate behavior. No, simply yelling at a child “does not an effective parent make.” Yelling definitely has its limitations. How then do we impress on our children the importance of positive behavior? When they have engaged in the same inappropriate behavior time and time again, how do we make them understand the need to change? When we really want to impress our children with the difference between appropriate and inappropriate behavior, “actions speak louder than words.” Quit yelling…and let them suffer the consequences of their behavior.
· Don’t yell at them for waiting until the last minute to do their school project. Instead, let them struggle through the process of completing it, even if they have to miss out on a favorite TV show or a desired activity. Let them suffer the poor grade if they do not complete it on time.
· Stop yelling about taking the garbage out. Simply ask them to take it out. If they do not take it out, watch it grow until they ask you for something. Then, remind them that they did not do what you asked of them. Calmly ask them how they think you should respond to their request after they disrespected your request. Ask them, again, to take out the garbage and let them endure the consequence of taking out an overflowing garbage can.
· No need to yell because your children did not do their one or two basic chores around the house. Instead, let them know that they cannot go out with friends…or watch TV…or play their video games, until they have finished their chores. Then stand firm on that statement until the job is done.
You get the idea. Children need to learn that misbehavior makes their life more uncomfortable than appropriate behavior. Yelling will not get that message across. Yelling distracts from that message. Allowing children to experience the consequences of their behavior will impress that lesson on them. Unfortunately, this means that we, as parents, have to step back and allow our children to endure the consequences of their behavior. We hate to see our child get a “F” (or even a “C”) because they waited until the last minute…or struggle and complain while picking up the overflowing garbage…or miss an opportunity they might enjoy because they have to finish a boring (even tedious) chore around the house. We hate to see our children suffer. It can be painful to watch, painful for the moment; but, the long-term learning for our children will prove priceless. They will learn that appropriate behavior results in a better life and mature decision-making produces greater happiness.
I watched a short interview with Michael Phelps’ coach (Bowman) during the Olympics last week. Apparently, Phelps’ coach used to create minor difficulties and problems for Michael during their training for the 2008 Olympics. “I’ve always tried to find ways to give him adversity in either meets or practices and have him overcome it,” Bowman said. He told about hiding Phelps’ goggles or some other equipment. The coach intentionally added little hassles to Michael’s daily workout in order to prepare him for any difficulties that might arise during meets. One reporter told this similar story about Phelps and his coach:
When “Phelps was swimming at one of his first national junior meets in the US, Bowman [Phelps’ coach] noticed he had left his goggles behind just before he walked out to the blocks. “I saw them sitting in our team area, I could have taken the goggles to him but I decided to keep them and see what he could do,” Bowman said. “So he swam and won the race without the goggles just like he did here in the butterfly when his goggles filled with water.” (Click here to read article)
That’s right, in the 2008 Olympics, this type of training paid off. When Phelps dove off the starting block for the 200 butterfly, his goggles came loose and filled with water. Phelps, who had dealt with adversity in training, swam through this hardship and won the gold medal. It seems that learning to deal with adversity came in handy!
What does this have to do with parenting? Our children encounter adversity all the time. Like Michael Phelps, they forget things that they need. Maybe they forget their lunch when they go to school. Maybe they leave their project unfinished until the last minute. Maybe they struggle with homework and do their best to avoid it. Whatever the difficulty, we do our children an injustice if we save them from every adversity and discomfort they experience—i.e., finishing the project they left until the last minute, running their lunch to them every time they forget it, always cleaning up the mess they leave. On the other hand, we help them learn and grow by waiting to “see what they can do” on their own. In fact, we promote Olympic quality problem solvers and planners by allowing them to learn from their mistakes and, as a result, increase their skills at problem solving. So, if you want your child to become a contender for the lifetime personal responsibility award and participate in the final heat of the problem solving event, allow them to struggle some during training (life). See what they can do on their own rather than jumping in to save them. Watch them learn from their failures. Enjoy the creative solutions they discover in the face of adversity. Then, beam with pride as they receive the gold medal in the lifetime personal responsibility and problem solving event.
I recently read an article (Welcome to the Age of Overparenting) in which the reader was asked to recall their happiest childhood moments. Think about those moments. How many of them included adults? Interestingly, the majority of our happy childhood moments did not include adults. They were not scheduled or orchestrated by our parents; they did not involve a coach; they were not part of an organized group outing. Most of our happiest childhood moments involved spontaneous activities engaged in during our free time. Notice, these happy moments involved:
1. Unstructured time in which we were free to do whatever we wanted. In fact, these times may have started out with our feeling bored and looking for something to do.
2. Unsupervised time. These happy moments were times of our own making, not the making of an adult. The times and the experiences were completely our own, not our parents’.
In today’s world, parents carefully orchestrate their child’s involvement in a variety of activities in order to provide them a multitude of experiences that will “enhance their college opportunities and lead to a more fulfilling life.” But, when do our children enjoy unstructured, unsupervised time of their own making? After all, those times became some of our most enjoyable memories and learning experiences. While we do not want to abandon our children or leave them unsupervised in dangerous situations, we might need to allow them some freedom to explore the world without our constant protection, direction, and involvement. Maybe we need to park our helicopters in the yard and stop hovering 24/7. Why?
- Micromanaging undermines self-esteem. We cannot rescue our child’s self-esteem by jumping in to save them from a difficult task as soon as we see them begin to struggle. We hinder their self-esteem by constantly watching over their shoulder and praising them for every little problem they solve, whether it was difficult or not. That type of micromanaging backfires in the development of self-esteem. To develop a strong self-image, children need to work hard and experience the benefits of that hard work. They need to experience failure and work through it. They need to pick themselves up and realize that they can go on in spite of the momentary setbacks we mislabel as failure. When parents recognize and acknowledge their child’s hard work, self-esteem improves. When parents acknowledge that their child worked hard in spite of setbacks, children develop persistence…and persistence leads to success. Success leads to self-esteem.
- Free, unstructured, and unsupervised play allows children the opportunity to learn how to negotiate with others and how to control their emotions. Children learn that they cannot always get their way. They will not always have adults to negotiate for them. Parents will not always be available to protect them from being overlooked or spoken to harshly. Parents will not always be available to resolve the conflicts that arise. Unstructured play without parental involvement allows children the opportunity to learn to compromise, negotiate, resolve conflicts, and stick up for themselves. Children who engage in unstructured, unsupervised play learn how to be independent.
- Free, unstructured time also allows children to create their own fun. They learn to manage their own time and manufacture their own activities. One study actually suggested that children at a local playground were 45 percent less active when a parent was present. They engaged in less physical play, taking away the opportunity for natural exercise, exploration, and typical growth and development. On the other hand, as children devise their own games and orchestrate their own activities, the activity becomes their own. They unwittingly take more pride in the it and engage in that activity more vigorously. The end result is healthy exercise, maturing social skills, growing self-esteem, and a positive memory that will last a lifetime.
One of the most difficult tasks parent face today is allowing their child the opportunity to engage the world on their own. As children engage the world on their own, they will experience hurt feelings; they will struggle to resolve relational conflict; they will even engage in some risky activities and go places we do not know about. But, as they have these rich experiences, they will become more independent. They will grow more confident. They will develop and mature. When they go to college, they will have a better sense of how to manage their time and resist the pressures inherent in that transition. As adults, they will have the happy memories of childhood experiences they call their own…completely their own. They will have become mature, responsible adults.
Have you ever experienced failure? Whether large or small, we have all experienced failures. Know what I think is harder than failing myself? Watching one of my family members experience failure. I hate to watch wave of disappointment, sorrow, and discouragement wash across their face. Even more, it hurts to hear them talk as though they are a failure and will never experience success. What can we do to help our family cope with perceived failures? There are several ways to respond: offering support, teaching, helping distract, using denial, venting, blaming, disengaging, or even abusing substances. However, research suggests three strategies prove most effective in dealing successfully with perceived failures.
Before I tell you about these three strategies, let me offer a crucial reminder. You can best teach what you practice. You can teach these strategies to your family any time you like; however, your help will prove most effective if you practice these strategies yourself. So, as we describe these three strategies, think how you can implement them into your own life as well as into the climate of your family life.
1. Reframe the perceived failure in a positive light. Put the failure into perspective and keep the mole hill a mole hill…not a mountain. You can do this in a number of ways. Look for some positive aspect in the outcome. Make note of what has been achieved instead of ruminating on the failures and setbacks. Consider what this experience has taught you and how this can help move you toward your ultimate goal. This one “failure” has helped you learn and grow, become wiser and more knowledgeable, stronger and more persistent. Appreciate how your character grows through experiences of failure. Take note of how moments of failure produce more persistence, determination, integrity, and overall strength of character.
2. Accept yourself and your efforts as legitimate. Realize that this experience does not define you. It represents only one small moment of your life, one minute moment of your lifetime. This one failed experience can teach you what you need to know for future successful experiences. Either way, you are not defined by your successes or failures. You are defined by your response to those successes and failures—your character, your reputation, your integrity. Let everyday experiences, whether successes or failures, promote mature character…and let your character define you.
3. Use humor. Laughter tends to make things more bearable. Look for the humor in this experience. Do not take yourself too seriously; laugh at yourself from time to time. I realize that we cannot find humor in all experiences of failure. None the less, look for the humor when possible. Allow yourself to laugh.
Failure is like the grain of sand that the oyster fails to keep out of its shell. Once inside the shell, that grain of sand irritates the oyster. As a result of the constant irritation, the oyster begins to cover the irritant with the same substance used to make its shell. Eventually, the irritating grain of sand becomes a pearl. The oyster’s failure to keep an irritant out of its life ultimately results in a beautiful pearl. As we learn to reframe our failures in a positive light, to accept ourselves and our maturing character, and to enjoy the humor of our lives, we can change the life irritant of failure into a beautiful gem. And, we can help our family members do the same.
My wife and I are both therapists. We love our work, but there are drawbacks when it comes to as psychobabble) and they turn it back on us from time to time. Let me give you a brief example. My wife and I left our children at home overnight for the first time a couple of weeks ago. They were ecstatic…and practically pushed us out the door. The more they pushed, the more I voiced concern. My youngest daughter just rolled her eyes. Just for fun—you know, trying to get a laugh—I decided to call the house when we were about two miles from home. My youngest daughter saw my name on the caller ID and answered the phone. Our conversation was brief and I tried not to laugh the whole time we talked. Our conversation went something like this:
“Just calling to check in,” I teased. “Are you OK? Is everything going well?”
“Dad, you just left 2 minutes ago! What, are you a therapist with separation anxiety?”
There it was…psychobabble turned against me. Although her comment was funny, it made me think. Parents raise children to let them go. That may well be one of the hardest aspects of parenting. We invest time, energy, material resources, and emotions into raising our children and teaching them to become responsible, independent adults…then, we let them go. Maybe my daughter is wiser and more mature than I like to admit. Maybe there is a little separation anxiety.
Of course, that process of “letting go” doesn’t happen overnight. It begins early, earlier than most of us really like. And, “letting go” is usually initiated by our children. They initiate it by running off to play with friends at the playground rather than letting us push them on the swing…or, listening to their 3rd grade soccer coach more than they listen us, even though the coach says the same thing we do. These periods of “letting go” expand to include weeks away at camp, long secretive phone calls with friends, going out on dates with people we have minimal knowledge about, gaining a driver’s license…all steps in letting go and learning to accept a little “separation anxiety.” Throughout this process, a successful parent moves from control to influence in their child’s life. Rather than forcing our children to do things our way, we slowly learn to loosen our grip and trust that they will follow the principles we have taught them. Rather than abandoning them to their mistakes because “they are leaving us,” we support them and offer loving influence and encouragement while they make their choices. We surrender control over our children’s lives and give away any control over how they use the gifts we have given them—the gifts of our time, energy, emotional involvement, and wisdom…our life itself. We trust them to make good use of those gifts. We pray that God will guide them in using those gifts wisely.
No, it’s not an easy process. We may struggle, but we gain something through the struggle. We become more mature, more like our Father. After all, it was God the Father who let His Son go…watching Him leave His home in heaven to make a life on earth. He watched His Son go all the way to the cross to carry out His plan of redemption. By doing so, He maintained a relationship with His Son that became even more intimate (if that is possible) and gained a whole new set of adopted children. So, maybe we become a little more like our Father as we let our children go. Maybe, we gain a little more intimacy with our children and an even larger family. Maybe…maybe I do have a little “separation anxiety,” but….