Parenting is a weird tension between following your instincts and squashing them. When my son trips and falls, or squabbles with a friend, or is in some way struggling, my first impulse is to solve that problem, immediately: snatch him off the ground and dust off his pants, talk out the argument with the pal, rebuild the tower that collapsed. But as much as the endless discussion of helicopter parents bothers me, I have to frequently remind myself that it isn’t my job to make my kids’ lives as easy as possible—and that it may even be counterproductive. Below, seven problems I’m not going to solve for my sons:
Boredom seems to have disappeared from childhood. Kids have tons of activities, reams of homework and a million options for entertainment at their fingertips. But boredom can actually be beneficial—it can prompt kids to try new things. My new response for “Mom, I’m bored”? “It’s okay to be bored.”
I have a hair trigger for frustration, as does my husband, but we deal with it in totally different ways. I tend to get enraged and keep hacking away at whatever is frustrating me—getting angrier and angrier in the process. My husband will feel the early stages of frustration, set down the project and walk away for a while. He comes back when he’s calmer. The pause gives him space to think; he usually manages to solve the problem on the next go-round. This strategy has been a revelation for me. When my son gets furious that the Lego house he built topples over, I tell him to play with something else for a while and come back to it. Once he’s calmed down, he can usually tackle the problem without freaking out.
3. Not Liking Their Meal
We follow Ellyn Satter’s division of responsibility in feeding our kids—which means that sometimes I serve meals I like and sometimes I serve meals the kids like (though generally I aim for things we both enjoy). If they don’t care for the main course, that’s okay—there’s always something on the table they will eat. It’s important for them to know that everyone, even Mom, gets their favorite dinner sometimes.
A fear of failure, writes Jessica Lahey, means that students don’t take intellectual risks. Encountering failure, or the possibility of failure, teaches kids problem-solving skills and diligence. If my kids are headed toward a wrong answer on a problem, or building a bridge that I can see is going to fall down, or even mixing paint colors into a monochromatic study in brown…well, that’s how they learn. It’s not my job to head them off at the failure pass. They need to fail to learn.
5. Running Out of Money
I’m a big fan of Ron Lieber and his advice on teaching kids about money. He counsels having kids take over more and more responsibility for their own expenses, like handing over the clothing budget for the year and letting them allocate it as they wish. As he said in an interview I did with him earlier this year, “At this stage, money is for practice. Mistakes are inevitable and can even be kind of entertaining. But we want them to make mistakes while they’re still under our roof, and not later on when the consequences are more dire.” So if my kid blows his clothing budget on one expensive pair of sneakers, and has nothing left over, well, that’s the lesson. He probably won’t make that mistake twice.
6. Arguments With Their Friends
I’m often tempted to mediate my kids’ squabbles with their pals. But (bear with me here, this is kind of a non sequitur) I have a pet theory about why celebrities’ kids are often kind of messed up: They’re surrounded by people who won’t push back against their bad behavior—caregivers who can’t really discipline without jeopardizing their jobs, or peers who are intimidated enough by fame that they won’t call the kid out. Children need to have conflict in order to know what boundaries are. They have to negotiate relationships on their own to develop checks on their behavior—it’s part of developing a social instinct. I won’t do them any favors by short-circuiting that process.
I’ve been reading a bit on the “homework wars” lately—how kids are swamped with hours and hours of work that infringes on family time, sleep and hobbies. And when I say I won’t solve the homework problem, I don’t mean I won’t offer help if they need me to explain a geometry lesson or talk about The Catcher in the Rye. I mean I’m not sitting and holding their hands through five hours of social studies and math. I’m going to set a timer for homework time, and what doesn’t get done doesn’t get done. Kids spend a full day in school and deserve some time in the evening for themselves, and for sleep. That’s more important to me than every scrap of homework finished.
So sure, I want to baby my kids forever, brushing away every obstacle from their path and kissing every boo-boo. But they need to learn to be independent from me and meet challenges head on. Because if they didn’t, well, that would be creating an even bigger problem—that they’d eventually need to solve on their own.