“Mo-om, he’s not sharing the goggles!” “I’m hun-gry!” "They're not being fa-ir!"
My friend and I are talking by the pool while our kids swim and play. It’s my friend time as much as theirs. Then comes that almost inevitable intrusion of a child whining for arbitration or seeking immediate gratification. They are looking for a parent to play referee and/or rescuer. These pleas are often quite effective in grabbing our attention and pulling us into these roles, and away from our own friend time. But they do more than just disturb our pool-side tranquility. Let’s look.
I may initially say, “You kids figure it out” but then get the desperate retort, “But they’re not sharing the goggles! It’s not fair!” Probably not - they’re kids. This is more common than crisis in the kid world. Our kids totally know that, even if we forget it for an adult moment. While it’s probably really annoying to them, it’s really it’s not our problem, though of course they’re hoping it will be. They persist. What path do we choose? (Choose Your Own Adventure parenting books would be an interesting subgenre.)
What could this poolside scene look like?
It could look like our kid coming over and I stop mid-sentence with my friend to turn and say, “What’s wrong?” I could take on the role of referee and tell the offending child to give the goggles back or say something like, “You guys have to share or no one gets goggles, you hear?”
“I’m hungry!” they say, and I turn and reply, “I’m talking right now - what do you want?” I really mean I was talking, but that’s clearly not as important as their sudden hunger is to me. The child and I could go back and forth about lunch or snacks and where to eat them around the pool, and... what was I talking about just now with my friend? I can’t remember. “Kids! Right?”
Even if I scold them for interrupting my conversation, it was a highly effective interruption. I’ve shown that even though I said I was annoyed by the interruption, I’m clearly not too averse to since I did stop talking and let them take the stage. Win win win for the interrupting kid! Sounds too harsh to call it a win? Just watch, it won’t be the last interruption. It was much too effective.
What if it could go differently? I finally became wise to how else the scene could play out.
My kid, or my friend’s kid, comes over to interrupt and I say, “Just a moment, please,” without breaking eye contact or attention from the friend who rightfully has it to begin with. I’ve found with some friends that this makes them a little uncomfortable. They may think it’s our adult job to be at attention for every want and whim and they get anxious that they’re keeping me from the important task of attending to my children. I am attending to my children at those moments. I’m attending to their very important need to respect boundaries and practice self-regulation.
If I attend to every wish immediately I do them a huge disservice because instant attention and gratification will become their expectation and they will never have the chance to build up the muscles of frustration tolerance. They will actually become more miserable the faster I rush to their emergent non-emergencies (I do move quickly for real emergencies, still aware that even in those moments my sense of calm or panic will be my children’s cue for their own reaction).
Newer friends may say, “No, no, go ahead,” to which I have to say, “Actually, it’s important to me to finish our thought here. And it’s important for them to wait a little. It doesn’t sound like an emergency.” I’ve learned not to be panicked by my child’s sense of urgency over goggles and tummy rumblings. While it feels like a really big deal, I know they eat regularly enough not to pass out from feeling peckish. Goggles are fun but the lack of them is not life threatening.
It’s annoying and unfair for anyone to demand help for something like it’s an emergency when it really isn't. I’m not saying it’s not really important to them (It can feel like the end of the world); I’m saying that their emergency, while important to them, is not an actual emergency requiring my immediate jump-to. Sometimes I quickly ask, “Fire, flood, or active bleeding? Is this an emergency?” and if the answer is “No,” which it usually is, then “Ok, I’ll be with you in a moment” - without breaking too much eye contact or friend conversation thread so as not to make it an actual, effective interruption.
They wouldn’t like me cannonballing into their pool play or demanding they fetch me something right away on my caprice. I’ve asked that question specifically, and they’ve emphatically agreed they wouldn’t want that - makes sense. Respect is learned in both directions, and that matters.
I can say to my truly beloved, boundary-testing child, “Just a moment, please” and finish my train of thought or let my friend finish theirs. I can then ask my friend, “Please excuse me just a moment, it looks like there’s a question. Yes?” If my kiddo attempts the “Moooooom!” before I’ve turned my attention to them, I actually wait longer - I want to make it ineffective to demand my attention so forcefully for nonemergencies.
Information to the rescue
Can we apply the principles from last post about providing information instead of directives?
I have learned how to give information at these times and try to leave it at that. I am confident they can figure out what to do with the information. With the goggles, when I’m ready to give them my attention, I might first say, “Thanks for waiting,” and then upon hearing the goggle grievance, say something like, “Oh that’s so frustrating” or “It really is hard to share. I’m sorry it’s such a struggle” (feelings do matter).
But then if pressed with, “Well, aren’t you going to do something about it? It’s not fair!” I can give them information along the lines of, “Sounds like you want me to figure this out for you, but they aren’t my goggles or my friends. I’m sorry it’s so difficult but I really do trust you’ll figure it out or choose something else. You make good decisions. I’m going to keep talking with my friend and this is the end of my attention for goggles. I’ll let you know when I’m ready for us to leave.” And then I smile and return my full attention to my friend. At times I can feel the indigence burning behind me, but holding my position cheerfully but firmly can help everyone move on.
If this is the first time a child is experiencing these kinds of boundaries and information sharing instead of refereeing, they likely won’t immediately accept it, but they may, and eventually they will. If I hear more “Please!!!” from the goggle justice league directed at me, I know I’ve already stated my position and need to be completely done with it. If there’s any hope that I will break down and mediate the situation, they will likely persist. On the other hand, without adult attention it’s way less exciting to squabble than to play and honestly they usually figure it out, or sulk and then realize, again, without adult attention to the sulking that they’d probably rather play.
“I’m starving!” My information: “We are heading out to get lunch in about 30 minutes. I’ll let you know when” (if they ask, “Is it 30 minutes yet?” in five minutes, I don’t have to respond at all because I already told them I’d tell when). Or I might say, “I’ll let you know when I’m ready to put out snacks.” I’ve actually found that the whinier the whine, usually the less serious the actual distress. They’re checking for the effectiveness of persistence. We will teach them how to treat us by how much we acknowledge their badgering or we don’t.
Liberation through information and boundaries. If I stick to it, they eventually give up and then both parties can enjoy the time. It’s no longer a kid-led hostage situation.
Then there’s our own issues that come into play. While we may know we are empowering our children to make their own decisions and work out their own problems, some of us may be carrying around an invisible backpack of guilt weighing us down from the kind of parental freedom we’re talking about. The contents of the backpack are unique to every parent. It may have souvenirs from our childhood that have us worried about our children feeling neglected or abandoned. It may have the weight of social pressure to feel like an “attentive parent.” It may have scraps picked up here and there from things we see and hear that have us worried we must mould our child into the wonderchild of all wonderchildren (super wunderkind!) and we must be actively moulding in a hands-on way at all times.
All of these backpack items are intangible and yet all of them affect our lives as people and parents. Many of these weights will want to counterbalance the idea that we can gift our children the closeness of trust built by the space we give them from our intervention. Perhaps we felt we had to be too strong in our childhoods and want to show our love through our assistance. None of us are suggesting we throw our children to the wolves, but that we recognize what are real wolves and what are other children stealing their goggles. We can strengthen them by not lifting a finger most times.
None of us emerge from childhood unscathed and some have deeper scars that heal more slowly. We all live in societies and are subject to peer and media pressure. These are all valid issues and hopefully we are all investing in ourselves enough to unravel them with a good therapist and other healthy supports.
Experiments in Caring
As previously stated, these suggestions are not simply in order to allow ourselves to kick back and chat while our children struggle. While they do allow us to be actual people and not simply the adults at the service of the children, they also allow our children to learn to be at their own service - how to settle their own differences, deal with minor hunger pains, and respect their parents and their parents’ friends. These are the practical ways they learn strength and caring.
That said, it is actually pretty important for our children to watch us enjoying our adulthood. It gives them something to look forward to. If adulthood looks like a life of slavery to one’s children, there’s not much enticing them to march onward. These gentle but firm boundaries that we set to respect ourselves as people deserving of time and space give them a model of expectation for their own similar boundaries.
I encourage some experimentation, whether poolside or parkside, in the grocery store or at a family gathering. Take a moment to think of past episodes of non-emergency desperation you were called upon to resolve and maybe brainstorm some kind, creative, and clear responses that communicate to your incredible child that because you love them so much, you are going to empower them to handle the situation. In turn, they can learn to love you so much that they will appreciate your feelings as well.
"Don’t touch that!" "Stop interrupting me!" "Take your feet off the couch!" "Be gentle with the cat!"
You know the feeling - the often palpable tension of the moment between your directive and your child’s compliance. The reaction to the direction can vary: perhaps your child pulls back and complies immediately, or they ignore you completely, or they sigh and roll their eyes, or they actively defy your command, or a host of other variations the provoke a variety of feelings in us. Our responses to their choices at that moment can also take on a multiple iterations: we repeat what we said, we expand on the reason why we told them to do what we did, we threaten some punishment/consequence if they don’t do what we said, perhaps we physically remove them from the situation, put them in “time out,” or we engage in a back and forth debate on the topic… Do you see anything here you recognize? It’s a common source of great frustration for both parents and children.
Is it possible to sidestep this power dance? Without claiming this tact is a magic wand, there is hope to be found in simply shifting from demand to description - from instruction to information. How could that change things?
As I often suggest, let us first think of our own feelings and preferences. “The steps are slippery.” This is information. What would you do with that information? You might walk more slowly, hold the railing, or take an alternate route. Do you need another adult to explicitly tell you these options? “But my child doesn’t know what to do! I always have to remind them to hold the railing!” If they are of the age and ability to walk up stairs by themselves, the chances are extremely high that they will figure out what to do without direct instruction. They are human beings. By nature, we are a pretty self-preservationist species. That instinct for physical self-preservation, though, can get hijacked by another kind of self-preservation - the preservation of personal dignity. Even 3 and 4 year olds have it, and for sure our preteens and teenagers have it on high alert.
The indignity of it all!
Have you ever defied your parents simply because you felt the need for some control - “I’ll make my own decisions, thank you,” whether said aloud or under your breath. Maybe it’s been that restaurant example when your mother tells you that you should order the chicken salad and while that had looked appealing, there’s something in you that now cannot stomach it and soup of the day it will be (or you’ve learned at this point that it’s better to keep the peace and really she’s asking to share the salad… but that’s another can of worms).
Our children also resent being treated as if they cannot make simple decisions, and while that is not likely the intention meant in “Hold the railing, it’s slippery,” that is unfortunately what we’re saying. Perhaps this sounds similar to the discussion in my post “Full Confidence” or in the part about the importance of letting go in “Why Low Stakes Failures Are Essential For Your Child’s Success.” It’s a theme with variation that giving them control over low-stakes decisions not only increases their confidence and their resilience, but, as we will discuss here, also decreases the provocation of a power struggle - and that increases our parental peace of mind.
In allowing our children to make a good (or bad) decision based on information, instead based on following a demand for compliance, we avoid putting our children or ourselves in a position to either acquiesce or win. We don’t necessarily mean to, but we often set up a “moment of truth” and then find ourselves shouting, You’re not listening to me!” What we are really saying, of course, is “You’re not obeying me!” What if we simply - and intentionally - didn’t set ourselves, and our children, up for this fight? Without a deft or comply scenario set before them, there’s much more room for everyone to breathe. Without an ultimatum, neither we nor our children have to struggle to win or “save face.” Everyone’s dignity and agency can be preserved. Information can change the terms of the game.
Information about Information
What constitutes this “information” we’re talking about? It usually is simple information about the nature of the item or situation: the stairs are wet, it’s your grandma’s birthday, the house we’re visiting has a pool we’re allowed to swim in. With that information, we can let our children draw logical conclusions: walk slowly, wish her happy birthday, bring a swimsuit and towel, etc. “Cats usually like gentle touch head to tail” or “It’s usually best to ask a cat’s owner how to approach their pet.” That’s information about the cat and the situation. Maybe they’ll be too rough and the cat will run away or nip at them. We have informed, we haven’t tried to control the situation, and we can see how it unfolds. Our reactions and palpable fears or expectations also contribute to the tension or calm of the situation and will be discussed in a moment.
The information we give may be about our own availability - "When I'm finished with what I'm doing I'd be really happy to talk" or “I have to pick everyone up right at 3pm for an appointment” (and we can stop ourselves there without adding “So make sure you’re ready to go” - that’s the logical action item). What if they’re late? Berate them? Better, we could continue to inform them. What would we like in that situation? Would we want our parent to say, “I can’t believe you’re late! I told you I had to pick up right at 3! Do I have to send a note into school for you to be ready?” I would guess that dignity preservation warning bells would be going off. Perhaps instead, and the trickiest part is often keeping one’s voice calmly even, we can state, “I was here at 3pm. The doctor’s office will need notice that we are running late.” At which point you could have your tardy child call the doctor’s office themselves to explain that you all are running late. Without providing a moral to the story (meaning we stop ourselves from saying, “Does that teach you not to be late again?”), conclusions and future intentions will likely be made by your child themselves. You took the punch out of the fight, taking the focus off of you and leaving it where it belongs, on them.
One of my favorite parenting authors, Rudolph Dreikurs, reminds us that we can really only control ourselves. We can try to control by punishing and restricting, but in the end we can only control our own choices and, in doing so with equanimity, we can set standards with less anger and frustration. I may choose not to eat at the table with someone who is playing with their food (without making a scene), or I may cheerfully choose not to serve dessert until plates are clean. Subtle, but a choice, not a threat or ultimatum. Again, if you get past the antiquated language, Children: The Challenge has brilliant ideas for creative calm within the storms we've become accustomed to.
How repetition can lead to a special kind of “deafness”
In addition to preserving our children’s sense of dignity and respect, constantly giving direct instruction can lead to a selective kind of deafness in our children. “Direction deaf,” our children learn to tune out our repetitive redirections and also typically opt out of responsibility. If any of us expect to be reminded not matter how capable we actually are of doing the right thing, some of us learn to wait for the reminder, it’s coming anyways.
Sometimes it’s not an outright fight of defiance, but becomes a game of defiance - whether unconsciously or deliberately. Noncompliance can be a very effective way to capture and hold adult attention. What may look to us like not caring can actually be a lot of caring for your undivided attention. Risky behavior may have the “worth it” trade off of center stage billing.
Let’s take “The enchiladas are hot” and say that it’s significantly different from “Don’t touch the enchiladas - they’re hot.” How is that so different? Both communicated that the enchiladas were hot, did they not? If we can leave out the command, the information allows for personal choice and doesn’t always require direct instruction. Low stakes trial and error - a third degree burn will not ensue if the enchiladas are touched and there’s actually less likelihood that they will be touched without the command. We may actually be provoking a game of “chicken” when our words or actions imply the assumption that they will make a bad decision and that we are ready at the quick to catch them. Whether we say, “Don’t touch it” or hover around it, it's clearly our focus and the tension can be interpreted as a challenge more than a warning.
I’ve learned to put the enchiladas on the table, maybe say “hot out of the oven” (but most likely that’s obvious) and walk away, unless I’m about to sit down myself of course and then I actively pretend to not care about the hot pan whatsoever. Our youngest is the most prone to testing the limits for himself and he will often reach out to touch it, but since I now pretend not to notice, it’s been a pretty self-limiting experience. When he does touch it, I’ve learned not to react. If there’s no social benefit to the pain, pain isn’t typically preferred. I’ve informed and he’s chosen. We don’t make it the evening’s entertainment.
Again, we’re not doing this “trial and error” on the edge of a cliff. We are letting them choose and act based on information instead of instruction in fairly low stakes moments that teach them how to handle the higher stakes moments on their own (more on the importance of low stakes trial and error). Telling them what to do simply will not build their executive functioning skills. Whether we call it emasculating, infantilizing, micromanaging, over-managing, or nagging, none of us like it, even when it’s done with the very best of intentions. We can break the cycle and start with information or intentional silence.
When Silence Speaks Loudest
Some situations don’t even really require information. They are either very obvious or will become obvious to our children if they are allowed to experience it independent of instruction or hyper-vigilance on our part. If we are the ones doing all the looking out and looking ahead, many of our children won’t see the use in doing it themselves (why double the work?). Some children find that they’re less frustrated if they’ve “checked out” since they know they’re going to be reminded anyways. This circles back to the importance of trial and error, as much as we may secretly want to bubble wrap our beautiful babies.
“The pan in the oven is hot” - now at least congratulate yourself for not saying “Use an oven mitt!” - but of course the pan inside of the oven is hot. We probably didn’t ask our 4 year old to take anything out of the oven, and our 10+ year old is almost assuredly pretty tuned into their heat sensors (or will be soon) and would appreciate that being recognized with silence. We may have to put our hands over our mouth (I know I do at times) and try to control our reactions should they indeed get a minor burn. “I run my hand under cool water when I get burned” and leave it at that, or the attention may be worth the burn, as discussed.
They read us like a book - even if they’re preliterate
They read our interests and stress levels, all the time. They’re watching for how we cope with their choices. Are we still holding the rope for a tug of war? After giving them information, is the ball of personal choice really in their court for solo practice and or still in play between us and them? If we clearly ready to rush in or volley, then it’s a game. If we really moved on to something else, there’s not much use in playing keep away from yourself and tug of war ceases to be a war without both people tugging.
It seems too subtle and similar to make a difference, but amazingly it usually does.
I’ve been in countless situations where information was more effective than direct instruction. I know a lot depends on my tone of voice, not so easily communicated here in text. “That’s too loud for my ears” instead of “Stop that!” “Wet shoes stay out on the porch” instead of “Don’t walk into the house with wet shoes!” It seems too subtle and similar to make a difference, but amazingly it usually does. “People don’t want feet on the table they eat on.” “These things will break if we stand on them.” With younger kids, we can solicit their help instead of their obedience with questions like, “Where do you think we could put these to keep them safe?” I often think of how information can just sound like “company policy” instead of personal prodding. “Dishes are washed right after use here, signed, 'The Management'.”
Perhaps we can talk more sometime about creative ways “The Management” can uphold the company’s policies without feeling like the police. It really can be possible.
We Can Outsource The Info and Outsource The Strife
I often outsource the info if I get pushback, especially in public places. For example, “The store needs everyone to walk so no one gets run into and things don’t get knocked down,” or “Employees don’t usually like cleaning up after people.” If that gets called into question, I cheerfully reply, “Let’s find an employee and see what their store policy is on that.” The trick is to keep our voice and faces totally neutral (I’m constantly strengthening my deadpan acting skills).
At a friend’s house, if my child puts their feet on the couch, I would direct them to ask our host if they were ok with that, open to the possibility that they are. Often enough the thought of asking an adult curbs the offensive behavior. And then our challenge is not to look satisfied that we won, but neutral about their choice to take their feet off instead of ask - that either would be ok with us. It’s our host’s couch. At our house when nieces and nephews or our kids’ friends are over, I (or our kids) might inform them that “We sit or lay down on our couches” or "We eat at the table." For really young or bouncy kids we try to set them up for success and play away from areas that would require a lot of information about what we do and don’t do.
Let's set everyone up for less stress
Practically speaking, are the directions and commands we’ve been giving over and over effective? We don’t necessarily have to work that hard to get the results we are looking for. And what are the real results we want? Children who instantly obey our constant commands or capable children who make good choices? Our part in this is key.
Perhaps it all boils down to connection. We all want connection - authentic, loving connection with our children. Yes, we want them safe and respectful, but above and below it all, we want a meaningful connection with our children. And that can start by showing respect through the assumption of capability or emerging capability.
Give it a try. Try information or neutral description over command and direction, maybe just for a week, and see if it feels any better, any more gracious and effective. Perhaps with fewer power struggles, we will all have more energy to enjoy our learning, growing, dignified children - and ourselves.
I hope you can take a moment to leave a comment or idea here.
They can’t find their favorite shirt. Someone wouldn’t share their ball today. The photo of them on Instagram was not very flattering. Their sibling joked that mom or dad was going to give away their iPad. BOOM. The world is over. Tears. Anger. The sky is falling.
Why are they making such a fuss over nothing? What’s the big deal? Get over it, right?
Let’s press pause. What makes something a “big deal” vs. a “little deal?” Importance is a pretty relative term. Food, shelter, and breathing aside, what constitutes important depends on who’s doing the constituting. And when something is relative, we would probably say it depends on your perspective. Good, perspective. Let’s get some perspective on this issue.
Maybe we think about perspective in terms of art - angles and viewpoints. A lot of perspective also comes from distance. With your face smooshed right up to something, it’s a little difficult to say you have perspective. We literally have to get some distance to see the larger picture.
A child’s world is right up close, not a lot of distance for any proper perspective. Their worlds are simply smaller than ours. In terms of what they know, have known, and have control over, it’s a limited microcosm. We all had it. It’s part of why little people can seem so selfish, like the whole world revolves around them. Without being able to see much farther than the very small radius around them, everything sure seems to orbit them - and they are clearly in the center. Developmentally it’s pretty normal. It’s a naturally limited awareness and subsequently limited perspective.
The world can seem terrifyingly large and mysterious to a child because of their limited view. In a little world, everything has a large effect. A little cup of water isn’t so insignificant to an ant farm. Scale, fragility, and precarity. There’s not a lot that your under 10 year old (or even older) has any real control over. You provide and they depend. It’s quite a vulnerable position if we think of it in that way. Perhaps you feel they’re too entitled or demanding, but in the end the providers have the reigns. We pay the grocery and internet bills. We provide transportation. That’s a lot of dependency.
In contrast, we adults probably hardly realize how much bigger our worlds are and easily forget the miniature world we once navigated. We’ve been alive two, three, or four decades longer than them. At this point, we know hundreds more people than our children. We’ve been driving our cars and our lives longer than our dependents have been saying the word “car,” let alone living.
I’ve picked out what shirt I wanted to wear at least 13,000 times. I’ve had a couple decades and some fabulous therapists since I was excluded from schoolyard games. I’ve learned I like to take photos more than be in them, and I just never worry someone is going to take away my devices unless I leave them somewhere, and then I’ll figure out replacing them. I have history, strategy, and agency in my toolbox. Our kids are building up those tools through experience (as discussed in my last post, it’s our struggles that prepare us for our resilient successes), but they haven’t done anything 13,000 times except maybe blink, and there wasn’t a ton of choice in that action. We have tons of practice and immense control over things in our lives that our children do not.
“Getting some perspective” is really something we adults must do. What may seem like trivial matter to us may indeed be a big deal to them because it’s enormous in the small scale they live in. It can’t really be otherwise, not yet.
We’ve all chuckled at how big we remember the hill from our childhood seeming, the one that’s actually more of a gentle slope. While one of my aunts does have a nice-sized backyard, my cousins and I remember it as being at least an acre. We all commented upon return in our adulthood that it must have shrunk. Did she sell off ¾ of it? We were little people. That yard was huge.
Coping is a skill
A shirt is a big deal from their vantage point. Add to the fashion distress the complication of the associated lack of experience with coping skills that comes from the reduced number of times one has had to cope. Coping is a skill. Anyone remember holding an inconsolable infant? Baby didn’t come with a bunch of self-soothing skills. That takes time and opportunity. Hopefully we can also recall times in our lives when we were convinced that all was lost. We get to the other side again and again, hopefully picking up tips for coping along the way.
Our children are hopefully building those skills, but they don’t just appear for them because we have them nor simply because we want them to have them. They take time and more time to cultivate. There’s nothing wrong with them when they’re feeling overwhelmed. It’s a feeling. We all have feelings, and not one person, of any age, likes those feelings dismissed or minimized.
Take a quick moment to remember the last time you felt overwhelmed. Got it in your mind? Would it have been supremely helpful at that moment for someone to look at you with exasperation and say, “Geez! Why are you making this such a big deal? Don’t be such a baby!” Please try not to fantasize about harming that imaginary person.
You, like your child, probably want a little empathy and solidity while you’re feeling big feelings that have you shaken up. Not “You poor thing” or “Tell me who did that and I’ll punch them.” Those don’t seem to help the situation, but are understandable knee jerk reactions.
Our kids get distressed. While we don’t need to solve all their distresses (in fact it’s best to not solve as many as possible), we can be a solid presence that neither dismisses their dismay nor crumbles along with them. Once again, I highly recommend Between Parent and Child for practical ways to empathize without enabling or infantilizing.
Learning to cope by watching us cope
Can the whole day stop because of a clothing crisis? Is a bad day on the playground license to spew angry words at everyone else? We can recognize that a problem feels seriously significant without giving it the right of way to run the show. We must all learn to make it to the other side of our disappointments and dilemmas, but, again, it’s a learning process. It doesn’t happen automatically. Being sensitive to feelings doesn’t mean we are slaves to those feelings and our children learn that first by watching us.
We adults get to model frustration tolerance and quick recovery times from setbacks. That will do much more than scolding or shaming. They are always watching us to see how we handle this big crazy world. Every parent is a teacher and we mostly teach through our everyday example.
We empower our children with opportunities to self soothe - not in the face of mortal danger, but in the precious low stakes moments life gives us a lot of if we can appreciate them. We all must learn to calm ourselves, console ourselves, even counsel ourselves, making distressing times our stepping stones to more quickly-found solid ground and showing our children the path forward.
What would we want said - or not said?
We can model our own emotional regulation while we embrace emotional dysregulation. I find it helps to think what I would want as an adult. Let’s imagine a morning where the hot water didn’t work. We are understandably frustrated, and cold, but have learned to still show up for work and not take it out on unsuspecting coworkers. While we don’t expect the whole office to rally around us with sympathy and blankets, woe to the colleague who hears and retorts, “Suck it up. There are people in the world who never have hot water.” (I’ve also worked in Haiti and even I would never say that and expect to remain friends with the person). Let us not be that annoying coworker to our children.
“I can’t believe you’re worried about that. That’s so silly.” Those are more words from the imaginary person you no longer plan to speak with. Our struggles are real. So are our children’s. Their disappointments and dilemmas are also very real for them. Even if we cannot totally grasp what it means to them, clearly it means something. They probably need to solve it themselves, and we actually help them do that by first appreciating that it’s something hard for them to solve.
Becoming an ally is awesome
Not having to solve their conundrums while recognizing the validity of the concerns is actually pretty awesome. You get to be on their side, not trying to push or pull, not diminishing or destroying the obstacle, but standing on their side while they figure it out, or simply let it pass. I’ve had plenty of panics that I realized myself were false alarms and was glad there wasn’t anyone giving me the “told you so” look when I came to that conclusion.
There are many great practical ways to apply this idea of taking them seriously without seriously taking over. Sometimes just a hug. Or “Ug, I’m so sorry.” We may have to retrain our eyes if they’ve become accustomed to rolling a bit.
Sometimes our lack of empathy can simply be the collateral of hurry hurry rush rush. Trying to get myself and three kids out the door isn’t typically the peak of my emotional availability. It really takes a conscious effort to remember that my children’s crises are not a plot to thwart my day and they’re not just “being drama queens,” as much as that does come to mind at times.
I have to remember that I can model and scaffold the advanced planning that helps prevent the last minute crisis. I often have to watch them go to school a bit disheveled or without papers that seemed to disappear overnight. Berating them is really quite tempting, I’m not gonna lie. And the less sleep I get the less zen and compassionate I know I am. I know I must try to align myself with them as much as possible. We all know frustration and we can feel for them in those moments, while still getting out the door. They’ll watch us for how we deal with our daily crises as well as how we deal with theirs.
Children: The Challenge
I don’t think I’ve mentioned the bedrock of my own parenting education. It’s an older, unassuming, and often-referenced book by Rudolf Dreikurs called Children: The Challenge. I think it’s gold. It held my hands when I felt ready to throw them into the air. More importantly, it invited me into a mindset of freedom from constant frustration and a practical pathway to empowerment. I see the premise as respect for both the parent and the child and how that can play out without compromising order and growth. I’ve heard there are updated versions, but in the version I have I still love the scenarios where “mother sits down to write a letter” both for how quickly that language became quaint and also for how relevant those scenarios described still are (when I substitute letter with text message). I recommend mentally updating the language and mining the wealth of wisdom.
We don’t have to convince them their crisis is trivial, nor should we take it over as our own mission. We can look with new eyes at the importance of things in their scaled-down worlds and recognize their feelings for the real feelings they are. They probably can’t understand why things as meaningless to them as stock prices or insurance premiums gets adults all in a tizzy.
Does any of this resonate with you for yourself or your child? Do you have any tips to share? Let's collaborate. Comment here.
Have you ever heard about the importance of making your child “anti-fragile?” I’m guessing none of us would want our children described as “fragile,” but what in the world is “anti-fragile?” Nassim Taleb writes in Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder about things that become stronger under pressure, not things like faberge eggs of course, but things like bones, immune systems… and, one could argue, children.
“Children who never face stress are more likely to respond with anxiety or overreaction because it’s so unfamiliar.” (The Good News About Bad Behavior, 42). We often label those reactions "crumbling," "melting down," or "breaking down."
The irony worth exploring here is that the effort to prevent pain and suffering for our children is likely exactly what makes them the most vulnerable to pain and suffering in the long run. Coupled with this desire to protect from distress is the increasing standard of perfection and production that robs our children of the opportunities for the small failures that lead to greater successes. Schools are pushing for perfection, even in the very low stakes learning stages - are we parents also getting caught in the trap?
We will explore the dwindling opportunities these days for our children to experience low stakes stress and uncertainty. Something this essential to healthy human development and deep learning needs some spotlight and spot checking. We know ourselves that there is little real growth without trial and error, and that there is no trial and error without error. What if there’s no room for error anymore? What happens to our children’s personal growth? Oh, dear. Let’s see how this is happening to our kids and what the heck we might do about it. We must really look in order to see, right?
The Rapid Loss of Low Stakes at School
I would argue there’s almost no space made in today’s conventional educational landscape for low stakes failures. We are increasingly setting our precious children up for high stakes distress. Every grade given every week, sometimes every day, “counts” starting in kindergarten. Kinder and 1st graders are pressured to perform well on every little evaluation, and those performance scores are often posted electronically for parental review (or scrutiny), a further message that these scores matter very much.
This hyper attention to every little performance has even seeped into the pre-graded years. Have you noticed the “improved quality” of the art that comes home these days from preschools and daycares? That level of precision and color coordination clearly required some intense management on the part of an adult. What could be a fantastically messy, age-appropriate art experience must now be not just refrigerator-ready but framable and social media postable. Whose work is that really? Seems like valid cause for pause.
The message in the constant evaluation and the perfect preschool construction paper shamrock is pretty clear: there is no room for failure. None. “These grades will follow you your whole academic career!” “How do you expect to get into college/high school/5th grade with a grade like that?” “Don’t color that all wrong!” The pressure is intense, off balance, artificially inflated, and I would like to argue, quite detrimental.
"Perfection is the enemy of creation"
I taught upper level Spanish at an all-girls high school in the Midwest for four years. My first year, I was boldly approached by several high-performing seniors who informed me that I was ruining their GPA. I was having them speak Spanish in an upper level Spanish class (go figure). Since they had never before been expected to actually speak the language, they were not scoring their typical A++ and were understandably frustrated. I was sympathetic and worked hard to make the class accessible and meaningful. That was not cutting it for them. Instead of being seen as a challenge, my class was seen as a threat to their precious and precarious perfection. I’m not sure any of them liked me. The next year, students knew what to expect and only signed up if they wanted to, well, speak Spanish, not just put the class on their resumes for college.
How did my otherwise “model” students become so averse to challenge? They, of course, had been trained for years, probably since kindergarten, through both subtle and direct messages that prioritized performance over process. Their currency was grades, they had accumulated great wealth, and my “meaningful approach” was robbing them of their earnings. They could not afford to learn something new.
Often-referenced are studies done by Dr. Carol Dwek, the “growth mindset” guru, that show a noticeable effect on the either interest in or fear of challenge depending on how people view themselves and their successes. There seems to be an important difference between a static understanding of "smartness" and a more dynamic view of success as something that comes from hard work. Studies were done with children and puzzles in which one group was told how smart they were for solving a puzzle and the other group was praised for their hard work figuring it out. When offered to do either the same or a lower level of challenge vs. a harder one, guess who didn’t want to risk that “smart” status? That’s right. No thank you for something that might jeopardize my standing, even if the harder puzzle may be more interesting and personally rewarding. Paralysis in perceived perfection.
When people with a fixed mindset fail, it is crushing and deters them from working harder because they see their “smartness” as something that is not changeable. If they fail, they feel they have lost their inherent “smart” identity. In contrast, when people with a growth mindset fail, they don’t see it as a blow to their core essence (their inherent “smartness”). They have control over how hard they work. They are more likely to see success as something that they can do something about, not a “do or die” situation.
Perception and mindset are fascinating and greatly correlated with our and our children’s interest in pursuing challenges, as well as with our ability to recover from setbacks. I highly recommend we all look into this more.
Our children are not blind to the writing on the wall or the report card - they are to perform, constantly, and perfectly. Like robots? Yikes. Adults would try to leave that pressure-cooker situation fast. Children cannot. The performance model starts waaay before it’s developmentally appropriate - and at what cost? Our anxious, frustrated, and potentially fragile children. It is not exactly the pain of constant performance that’s as concerning as its message: they are never allowed to fail.
Entrepreneurs who are terrified of failure, well, couldn’t be entrepreneurs. Every good scientist knows that they must know failure to some day approach success. Real science doesn’t always work out, it can’t and shouldn’t. Real children don’t typically make perfect science fair boards in 4-6 weeks. We will dive into such projects in a moment.
It’s suffocating. 6th grade anxiety. 2nd grade panic attacks. Don’t believe it? Didn’t happen when you were in school? Lucky you. It’s happening right now. Like I said to extroverts who didn’t believe what I was writing about introverts, if you don't believe me about the pressure that starts as early as preschool, go find someone who does. It shouldn’t be hard. I know a whole big bunch of them. Your niece, nephew, grandchild, or even own child may be silently tied up in knots, stuck in a static perfection mindset. Sound like a hostage situation? I've heard more than one young person describe it in those words. I recently helped open a school to provide an oasis from this pressure mess, but that’s another story for another day.
Are We Caught Up In This Web of Perfection?
I would argue that most of us get caught in the trap ourselves. We get ourselves too invested in the small products. Small products: homework, projects, tests - things that simply do not define our children. Their poster presentation is not their opus, nor it it ours. But while many of us have fallen into the perfect project trap, it seems to actually be a double bind. We find that the work our children are assigned is increasingly designed to be more our work than theirs.
My son came home one day from his conventional 1st grade class with project directions that simply could not be accomplished as directed by our fairly typical child in that class. My husband and I tried, as we usually do, to let our child do the assignment himself. What resulted was public shaming. When he didn’t turn in the project because, well, he simply could not do it on his own - he wasn’t independently literate yet and physically couldn't write five sentences on an index card (I'm confident he wasn’t alone in the class), his “treasure box” toy was taken away and we were called to pick up our sobbing child.
My husband spoke with the teacher the next day. She herself feels pressure to give assignments. We got a better sense of the environment our son was expected to navigate and were able to give a better sense of where we stand as parents who obviously believe in education, but don't believe that learning what's important happens through undue pressure.
When the next project directions came home, we were wise to the unwritten directions: this must be completely facilitated by an adult. The expectation is for a standard not in line with most children’s actual abilities. It’s more in line with adult expectations, thus it must involve adults.
In fact, I got to see a lot of other parents’ versions of this next project as they were proudly shared on the class WhatsApp group. Even an incredibly precocious first grader could not have made anything remotely close to those products. They were lovely. They were just not a child’s work. This has become the norm.
Celebrating The Beautiful Mess
So let them make an ugly project? Actually, I propose we take it a step further and use our parental powers to make that ugly mess the gold standard. Developmentally appropriate is the name of the game for proximal zones of development (arguably how we all actually learn new things) and being able to accomplish something on our own is the foundation of confidence that our children need to build their futures.
Wait! You might be saying here, “What’s so wrong with helping my child? At this point you’re expected to. And what’s wrong with a pretty product? A pretty product feels so satisfying, sometimes so important, or often so nonnegotiable!”
What if turning in a polished product was considered an anomaly that clearly broke the unwritten rules? What if we parent-peer pressured each other and the school to let kids do their own project? This likely will involve a very invested PTA.
Letting our kids do their own assignments requires the assignments to be do-able. We should be able to let our kids take care of their own work, struggling perhaps, but not drowning in waters out of their depths. Projects, even a lot of daily homework, increasingly require adult help. We've become so used to it, whether we hate it or sometimes kind of like it. The issue is the message it's sending to our children.
What would the message be to you if every assignment your boss gave you required a supervisor to walk you through it or do it for you?
The necessity of adult intervention is arguably quite structural. Teachers themselves are often trapped in the product pressure cooker, expected to have their students produce results that necessitate adult intervention, or take over. Goodness.
We’re talking about products while we know our kids are process not product. Our young are the definition of process. 5, 10, even 15 years old is not the final word on a finished human being. It’s just not. Neither are any of their products the final word on their human potential. They are all in process. This is important. They must be allowed to have process, not just pretty products.
Can’t. Let. Go. Must. Help. Craft.
The school I currently work at has sponsored a unique craft at several festivals we’ve participated in. It doesn’t look particularly unique at first, but it has consistently proven to be a wildly challenging craft for adults - note that the craft is meant for children. The activity involves using recyclables to create anything, really. I suspect most parents think that the unique part about it is using ‘junk’ instead of new art supplies. But that’s not the radical or challenging element of this activity. We call it our “Self-Directed Recycled Makerspace,” and the express intent is for children to create by following their own direction - self direction. That is the unique part of this seemingly benign, environmentally-friendly craft.
It has been fascinating to watch how incredibly difficult it is for parents (and grandparents) to just let their kids put empty plastic bottles and rinsed out yogurt cups together with tape and glue without it being a polished product. We tell parents: “Take a load off! Everything is safe to use and we really don’t care if they make a ‘mess.’ Just let’em do what they will.” Some can do it (parents that is) and can sit and let their kids create. But the majority really just can’t. In fact, it looks painful for them if they first try not to intervene.
Parents have great ideas: “Why don’t you make a castle?” “Here, let’s tape these two things together…” “How about…?” Somehow they don’t realize they’ve taken over. We see it immediately on the kid’s face. Even if the kid had at first turned for help themselves. When help arrives, they subtly pull away from the project. It’s not theirs anymore.
Maybe the adults want to do an art project themselves. I’ve encouraged many to make their own project but so far no one has ever taken me up on the offer. While I know they believe they are helping, even collaborating, with their child, they are usurping an incredibly low stakes project.
If their kid made the weirdest, messiest, most unidentifiable project that really didn’t stay together… so what? There’s no panel of judges, no swords to throats for perfect creations. It’s a craft at a festival with recycled junk and the sponsors of the craft have explicitly said they don’t care what is used and what is made. There has to be a sociology paper waiting to be written at these events.
The real high stakes part in this low stakes project is honoring a child’s agency and creativity.
What’s Really At Stake
Let them mess up? Or the “F” word - I’m gonna say it - Fail? Gasp! Yes. They must. “But it pains me to watch.” Then don’t watch. I’m serious. It’s low stakes. At times I have to walk away in order to control my urge to creep in and intervene or suggest.
They must fall from small heights instead of being pushed higher and higher with the crippling fear of heights that comes from never having fallen. You’re supposed to fall on your face, not from 50ft, but from your own feet. Several times.
My very first blog post, “Full Confidence,” recommends that our children be allowed to leave the house without a sweater (not in actual hypothermic conditions of course, but those are honestly rare, especially where I’m writing from). If it’s their choice to make, let them choose a mediocre meal from the menu without a side of raised eyebrows or sighing. Let them build a weird yogurt cup castle blob. Low stakes.
Yes, we can even let them pursue interests we don’t fully understand or particularly approve of… anime, a new fashion trend, juggling, local politics... obviously not drug dealing (come on). Why? It can be theirs. Will they be the best at it? It really doesn’t matter. It’s theirs and they will navigate it. This means we also can’t get so excited about it that we take over. Restraint!
They may do a sport, but it is theirs or ours? Sometimes it’s so hard to differentiate! How high do we make the actual low stakes there, come to think of it?
Empathizing Without Infantilizing
Your daughter left her book report at home. Disappointing. What will she do? Not you. Empathize, but don’t rescue. Will the world end? Will the lower grade destroy her chances of college admission and all future happiness? Her happiness is more likely found through the resilience built figuring the forgotten report issue out herself. For real.
Book recommendation: Between Parent and Child. Empathizing without enabling or infantilizing. I’ve found this book incredibly helpful both personally and professionally (and it’s a quick read).
Someone flipped your 12 year old son the middle finger (we’re talking the impulsive angry bird here, not actual bullying). Here’s our moment, wait, his moment. What does he want to do? Nothing? Maybe that’s ok. Does he want you to solve it for him? Maybe a little, but no, not really. Should you go tell the teacher to step in and have the offending friend “say sorry” to your son? Maybe we could just get rid of “Go say you’re sorry” from our repertoire of possible solutions. Not that apologies aren’t important, but it’s pretty important that they’re not micromanaged.
Empathize. That must have felt bad or made him mad. It also put a low stakes strain on him that he needs much more than the bubble wrap we might really want him in or our fantasy of having the good fairies cast a protective spell around him until his 16th or 26th birthday (remember Sleeping Beauty? More a cautionary tale about overprotectiveness than a romance, I think).
It starts even earlier when our toddlers and preschoolers squabble at playdates and playgrounds. Barring life or eye threatening peril, we can let them start figuring out who solves their problems right here. Is it me here in a diaper who navigates this crazy world or mommy and daddy who must constantly jump in to negotiate, placate, or arbitrate?
If we don’t think we’re sending a message, look again, because they read it loud and clear and seem to learn faster than we do. You can see the little tykes who are looking to see if they have their parent’s attention during a tiff. The dramatics are usually a bit more pronounced should they know they can effectively elicit a swift rescue. Yes, our children will cry when their toy is taken by that kid. Yes, yes, they will. The world will not end. In fact, their resilience may begin.
If you feel like you’ll get dirty looks for not stepping in or that people will think you’re “ignoring” a problem, might I suggest we take a cue from the parent who simply says, “I’m a noninterventionist.” Or maybe something more like: “I’m working on letting them work things out. As hard as it is, I know it’s important.” This will communicate that we are intentionally choosing parenting strategies that we’ve really thought about.
“Before jumping in to correct or comment on their behavior, let's ask ourselves whether what they’re doing is causing any harm. They’ll learn more from trying out different strategies than they will if we hand them the right answer.” (Lewis, 82)
In carefully shielding our children from all discomfort, we whisper loudly that they aren’t very capable themselves and will always need us - they can’t even manage the little things for goodness sake! That lack of confidence is the shaky foundation of fragility. Better to help by letting them start figuring some of this interpersonal stuff out now. They can do it. In fact, they must. And we can let them. We can and should help them build skills, sharing our experiences of what’s worked and hasn’t, but not in the heat of the moment - save it for a low-pressure, casual conversation time.
Nothing gives experience except experience
Always telling someone what to do does not allow their own executive functioning muscles to flex and strengthen. Strength comes from use, from some strain, from application. Reading about weight lifting or watching someone workout on YouTube, or even having someone carry the weight right beside you, for you, does not one muscle build. Bummer. I would be ripped.
They’re gonna be nervous. They’re not gonna know what to say. They might not say it right. Yes yes and yes. And, they just won’t learn how to if it’s done for them.
A quick trip to the library before we go
My good friend Erika is a public librarian. Almost every time I’ve been at her library, and you know I’m at the library a lot, I watch the unconscious low stakes takeover in real time. A parent and child approach Erika to ask about a book (usually for something like A.R. - more on that another day). The book is for the child but the parent does all the talking. Erika consistently and intentionally addresses the patron whom the book is for, the child of course.
More times than you might imagine, the adult answers the question directed at their child. We’re not talking two year olds here, though she would direct her question at them as well. It could be an 8 year old or a 12 year old - someone quite capable of understanding and answering themselves. High stakes moment? It’s a library, the children’s section of a library. What better place for a parent to zip it and let their child practice advocating for themselves? We can do it, parents! We probably don’t realize when we’re not!
We’re so practiced in speaking with adults - which is exactly why we don’t need more practice. Wait! Force them? No, my friend, just give them space. Pleasant, non-pressured, positive space. Let the kid speak.
Our children’s worlds are increasingly pressurized and decreasingly open to that messy thing called “figuring it out” that makes us what and who we are.
We can be part of the solution. We can advocate for saner standards, minimize our focus on product and performance, delight in the process, pay attention to the pressures our children feel, and give our children the fabulous freedom to fail and fall and become anti-fragile.
More than any GPA or blue ribbon, resilience is often the greatest predictor of lasting happiness and success. Our children must become resilient enough to handle all the inevitable bumps, birds, blunder, and boulders their lives will hold. We cannot anticipate all of them and should not attempt to throw ourselves in front of them.
If our goal is to some day have children who are independent, self-sufficient, confident and content adults, we gotta give them the time and the tools to become just that. We must let them be just who they are in order for them to find out who that really is.
Does any of this resonate with you for yourself or your child? Do you have any tips to share? Let's collaborate. Comment here.
Some other good articles on the topic:
Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail: A new study explores what happens to students who aren't allowed to suffer through setbacks.
Jessica Lahey, The Atlantic Jan 29, 2013
Beyond Resilience: Fostering Anti-Fragile Children
Wanting our children to be resilient is too low a goal, they need to be more.
Steve Baskin, Psychology Today Feb 12, 2019
MAIN Author: CHRISTEN PARKER-YARNAL