Parents' Constant Help Is Actually Hurting Kids

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
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I am letting my 5-year-old dress himself. This means that he has to select his own clothes, stem to stern, take off the old ones, put them in the hamper, and don the new ones he’s selected, in the right order, without falling over. This would take me approximately two minutes. But the task takes him 20 minutes, because Sunny picks his brother’s underwear on purpose, refuses to put his clothes in the hamper, falls over putting his pants on backwards, and shows no regard for the front or back or a shirt, regardless of graphic design. Then, when that’s pointed out, he has to begin the arduous process of pulling the shirt off, turning it inside out, turning it right side out (5 minutes), and putting it back on.

I resist the urge to rush in and do it for him. I have to stand back. I can’t help. No matter how annoying and frustrating that is.

It’s important that when kids are learning, we resist the urge to jump in and “help” all the time. That “help” often isn’t help at all; it’s hindering their learning. It’s not actually help, it’s hurrying.

Think of a mom trying to get her kids out the door in the mornings. She’s not helping Junior learn to tie his shoes. She might give him two chances, then “help” (i.e. do it for him) because there is a schedule to be kept. It’s totally understandable.

Avoiding this kind of “help” is even more important when it comes to learning physical skills. Imagine a kid learning to walk. We like to help kids learn to walk. We also freak out about kids learning to walk, because we worry that they might fall. But you know what a natural part of learning to walk is? Falling. If we don’t let kids fall, they don’t develop their sense of “being at home in their bodies.” Basically, if they don’t fall, they don’t learn to fall well, and if they don’t learn to fall well, they’re in far greater danger of falling badly later and causing themselves more harm (think off playground equipment, or while running or sliding), than they would be if we didn’t jump in and help so much.

The same goes for other large motor activities, especially those necessary for daily life: sitting, for example, or climbing. We often help because we want to hurry children’s development along. We’re impatient for them to learn something new, to hit a new age or stage, to develop a new skill. But they need to develop those skills on their own time, at the best time for their sense of “being at home in their bodies.” Yes, without us helping them climb and hovering behind them, they might fall over a few times.

They might cry. But they’ll learn something more important: that they can conquer challenges without constant adult help and hovering. They don’t need Mama to place each foot on the stairs for them; they can climb the stairs on their own. They don’t need Daddy coaching them through every step at the park, basically telling them they’re going to fall; they can climb and explore on their own. This instills a sense of confidence and self-reliance. Children learn to meet challenges head-on and face them. When we learn not to constantly offer help, they learn not to constantly expect it. None of us want to grow needy, dependent children. But by offering help at every turn, that’s what we’re doing. They have no chance to build their confidence.

When we resist offering “help” all the time, we also offer very important, real help in another area — enabling children to learn their own limits. When we always swing kids over puddles, for example, they never learn how far they can jump. When we hover underneath, ready to catch them, there are never any real-world consequences to their testing their limits. If we always hold their hands while they balance, they never learn if they can balance on their own, and for how long. In other words, when we stop offering help all the time, kids not only learn to meet challenges, they also learn how to meet failure.

And we know learning to fail is an important skill. As The Child Mind Institute says, “Not learning to fail leaves kids vulnerable to anxiety,” because they’ve never learned self-reliance. Even more frightening, not learning to fail can “make kids give up trying—or trying new things.” They don’t trust themselves enough to try something new, because they’ve had help learning everything else. Without that help, they’re adrift.

So much of parenting is unlearning what we were taught. And we were taught, in so many ways, that parenting meant teaching, and teaching meant helping. But really, so often, teaching means standing back and watching. Teaching means offering support, which is very different from help. When my son dresses himself, I offer support as I point out that his underwear are falling off and he might want to get a smaller pair. I offer support when I tell him that his shirt is on backwards. I offer support when he reaches out and says, “I don’t know how to turn this shirt rightside out,” and I say something like, “You could try pulling the sleeves,” rather than taking it from him and doing it myself.

We offer support to our kids when we stand back and watch. Even if it makes us gasp. Even if we want to close our eyes and yell at them to get off the damn balance beam, or hover behind them. They don’t need our help. After all, the kids are alright — even without our help, thanks.

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