“Almost every hard decision of child-rearing, each tiny step – should I let her cross the street? Can he walk to school yet? Should I look in her dresser drawer? – is about how to give up control, not how to increase it; how to cede power, not how to gain it.”
– Child development specialists Alison Gopnik, Andrew N. Meltzoff & Patricia K. Kuhl (1999, p. 200)
A parents job: Letting go
Letting go and relinquishing children to experience the full catastrophe of life is one of the most difficult things a parent is asked to do. It’s also their most important task. You’re not raising a child to become a dependent person. Your objective is to raise someone who doesn’t need you anymore. It’s been noted that the ironic thing about parenting is that your job is essentially to pour all this laborious love and energy towards a little person with the end goal being that they abandon you and leave to strike out on their own. It’s your priority to eventually put yourself out of a job.
On the bright side, this prospect isn’t as bleak as it sounds. The anxiety parents feel over letting go is almost always worse than the outcome of actually doing so. Love and need are often connected, but your kids will always love you even when they don’t need you. And although they may stumble along the way or get themselves into some precarious situations, these things are typically overcome and tend to be far less debilitating than being raised to be helpless and dependent. So with that in mind, we’d like to offer a little advice on ways to parent without being overprotective.
Parenting Without Overprotecting: How to relax as a parent and loosen your grip on kids
A) Only offer comfort when your child seeks it out. Don’t rush to coddle them before they have a chance to be upset or to deal with things on their own.
B) When they do cry on their own or come to you with arms up seeking comfort, by all means, give it to them. But do so in a non-frantic way while talking things over with them to help them realize that they will be alright and can conquer adversity: “Wow, it looks like that really hurt. But I don’ t think anything is broken. Give it a little while and it will begin to stop hurting. Is there anything we could do to help make it feel better?” This type of comforting gives children the attention they crave at the moment while also helping them develop their own coping skills.
C) When it comes to playing the role of policeman for your kids, adults should try to balance between the two extremes. You don’t want to be the parent or teacher who lets anarchy reign and doesn’t help resolve conflicts either out of disinterest or just plain laziness. This approach allows more dominant children to use antisocial tactics to get their way, and it leaves the other kids in a vulnerable position. This type of solve-it yourself parenting promotes chaos and leaves children distrustful, teaching them to have contempt for basic social rules. But you also don’t want to be the parent who rushes in to settle every little dispute that arises between the kids.
So when problems arise, your first course of action should be to ask children directly: “Is this something you can work out for yourselves right now and I’ll have a talk with Jonny later?” Often children will seek adult intervention more out of a thirst for fairness than out of immediate necessity. Encouraging them to work these small conflicts out amongst themselves or live with minor injustices in the moment allows them to get practice dealing with less-than-desirable situations. So long as you’re sure to address these situations later and to a degree that keeps order and peace, it’s perfectly healthy for kids to have to cope with unfair treatment. After all, if you think justice and fairness reign supreme in the adult world, then I want some of what you’ve been smoking.
D) Don’t overthink safety. As Dr. Michael Thompson, PhD. astutely points out, “we can’t keep our children completely safe, but we can drive them crazy trying.” (Thompson, 2012, p. 122) This may sound astonishing coming from a safety organization, but complete safety should not always be the dominant priority. Not only is it an impossible goal unless you keep your kids locked inside a bubble, but overbearing safety concerns can stifle a child’s development.
There is inherent danger in everything you do. Parents must distinguish between reasonable precaution and restrictive safety measures that prevent kids from living. For example, simply driving your child to school in the morning is more inherently dangerous than sports or sex or child abductors or any of those other issues parents worry about. Parents should focus their efforts around trying to make a child’s activities as safe as possible, without restricting a child’s activities out of fear they might get hurt. It’s both reasonable and prudent to teach your children to be cautious around strangers. This type of safety training has prevented many abductions and saved countless lives. But it’s not reasonable to keep your kids from playing in the park out of fear of strangers. It is reasonable to restrict your child from climbing 50 feet up in a precarious tree where a fall could end their life. It’s not reasonable to prevent your child from climbing in trees because they might fall. It’s reasonable to have kids wear helmets or other protective gear during sports. It’s not reasonable to pull them from sports because they might get injured. After all, the threat from childhood obesity and an inactive lifestyle is just as serious as any risk from sports.
Cars are dangerous, which is why every loving parent insists their kid buckles up. But few would consider it prudent to never let your child ride in a car, because the shackles this might put on their life would prevent them from enjoying some wonderful experiences and living normally. Parents should take the same approach with other safety issues: taking every reasonable precaution to limit the risks, but in ways that do not prevent a child from experiencing life.
E) Arrange for plenty of time in which children can explore in safe settings unsupervised and away from adults. All kids need time alone when they aren’t being watched like a hawk by grown-ups. Many of the most memorable and enriching childhood experiences occur when kids are left alone together to create their world as they please. It is during these types of interactions that skills like imagination and social intelligence are fostered. As Dr. Michael Thompson writes, “In order to grow in the ways they need to grow, children have to take the lead, and usually this is away from us. …At many points in our children’s lives, we need to step aside, ask other adults to take over, and even send our children away in order to help them become loving, productive, moral, and independent young adults.” (Thompson, 2012, p. 198)
F) Try to be a balanced parent. One of the most important things a parent can do for their child is to walk the middle road as best as they can. Not too frantic about things, not too lenient or loose either. Research has repeatedly proven that a balanced approach to parenting is what brings about the best results. Extremism to one end of the scale or the other will always produce more vulnerable children.