I am a firm believer in the idea that kids need to work their own problems out. The world can be difficult and kids need grit to succeed. Recently, I heard about employer who had an employee's mother call him to demand that he change her son's work schedule. The son was a new employee and schedules were done according to seniority. One hears about this more and more often and it is worrisome--both for the long-term prospects of the child as well as our collective future.
To intervene is to cripple them and reduce their ability to function in the world. But then--bam! My child gets too much homework, or someone is mean, or--any number of other things. Suddenly, all my beliefs about non-intervening get tossed out and I'm ready to be a micro-managing helicopter parent.
I don't think it's just me. I believe most parents recognize that it can be unhealthy to intervene too much. They understand that on a theoretical level. But then, a child has difficulty, your parental instincts kick in, and suddenly you are devoting all your resources to solving a problem for your child.
This has happened to me very recently. There was a situation in which I intervened and later realized I shouldn't have. Then, there was another situation in which I did not intervene and now think I should have.
So, how do you know when to intervene and when not to?
I've been thinking a lot about this, and while I don't pretend to have all the answers, I have come with a few thoughts.
1. Is your child in serious physical danger? You should probably intervene. I say "probably" because I think the level matters. A skinned knee or bruises? No. A broken limb? Yes.
2. Is your child's long-term health and/or happiness at stake? A test, several assignments, a role in a play, playing time in a game, even a final grade in a class do not rise to this level, in my judgment. Be careful with this one. It can play tricks on you, and you can easily convince yourself that intervening is necessary.
3. Is there a power imbalance at play? Kids need to learn to work through problems. They need to learn to express concerns to their teachers and peers. Disagreements are a chance to learn how to work through these problems. Bullying is different. It involves a power imbalance, repetition, and intentionality. Someone who is being truly bullied may not be able to solve the problem using his or her own resources. Note that a lot of what people call bullying is not true bullying. It's mean, it's discouraging, it's difficult--but it's not bullying.
4. Ask yourself this: "If I don't intervene what is the worst thing that will happen?" The answer to this question is illuminating. It leads me to realize that usually the stakes are not terribly high. I might be frustrated, my child might be frustrated, and so on. There is rarely a serious, long-term consequence.
5. If you think it is serious, then add this question. "Even if it is serious, is this problem worse than inhibiting my child's problem-solving abilities?"
6. Do an ego check. I am confident that a lot of parental interventions stem more from wounded pride, bruised egos, latent insecurities, and other similar parental issues. Asking myself why I really care is often very illuminating for things like this. I really think that's true.
7. Do you intervene a lot? If everything looks like an emergency, then your view of emergencies might have become inflated. If you find yourself saying things like, "I would never want to be the kind of parent who xyz, but..." more than once or twice every few months, I would be very careful and do some reflection. Intervention is a habit, and it can be hard to see. But if your child is constantly needing intervention, I suggest that might a warning sign. You might ask a trusted outside observer.
8. Is everyone out to get your child? If you feel that lots of people--coaches, teachers, etc.--don't appreciate or understand your child, that would be a big red flag. I'm not saying that would never be true. But I think it's unlikely enough to give some serious pause.
9. Last of all, it is my experience that policies and procedures are not usually random or arbitrary. Generally there is a reason someone created a rule or policy. Chances are that there is a reason that coach didn't play your child, or that the teacher gives so much homework. Maybe not, but it would be good to try to explore that before you intervene.
10. When was the last time you coached your child through how to solve a problem?
11. When was the last time you saw your child solve a problem?
A final caution: make sure you understand the full context and details of the problem. Sometimes there are nuances and levels of meaning that might give additional insight. It can be embarrassing to intervene and then find out your understanding was incomplete or just plain wrong.
What are some things that have worked for you in deciding when to intervene?
I spent the last two weeks writing about how important it is not to coddle and over-protect your child (here) and then suggested some times that it might be appropriate to intervene (here). Before I move on and leave the subject altogether, let me offer a cautionary tale from some years ago that, for me, puts it all into perspective.
This is really a tragic story and it makes me sad to write it, but I think it's important because it can prevent other people from suffering the same fate. It's a story I've pondered often in my own parenting efforts.
I once had a student who was a wonderful child in many ways. The student was talented, bright, and full of possibilities. This student had loving parents and the parents were enamored with their child. Everything the child did was celebrated and the parents worked hard to create a wonderful life for the child.
During the child's later middle school years, some small, problematic behaviors began to occur. Nothing major, but some less-than-ideal things. This is normal--it happens with every child as they work through puberty and the attendant stresses.
However, the parent made a critical mistake. Parent began to intervene. Instead of listening to the teachers and others who brought the behaviors to light, Parent became argumentative and felt that teachers were attacking Child. Parent began running interference for child--celebrating every achievement and ignoring the less-positive feedback.
Child began to grow entitled and felt untouchable and started to make some even less-desirable choices. Child eventually took some actions that led to more formal discipline by the school. Still nothing major--a serious talk and detention hall.
Parent was outraged. Furious. Felt it was unfair, unwarranted, and so on. Fought it every step of the way.
It will not surprise you to learn that Child grew up with a strong sense of entitlement. This had an impact on the way Child acted--more and more spoiled and disagreeable. Whenever natural consequences came, Parent intervened, seeing every disagreement in which the Child was involved as a conflict between justice and injustice. Even formerly trusted sources and advisors were shunned because they gave advice and counsel that was too hard and direct to be listened to and did not sufficiently celebrate Child.
Fast-forward a few years. Child struggled in high school. Teachers were impervious to parental pressure. Peers shunned Child, who had now become spoiled and engaged in self-defeating social behaviors and was unable to keep or maintain friendships. Worse, every action Parent and Child took to rectify the social situation actually made it worse.
But here is the tragedy: Parent was totally and completely unable to help Child. Parent couldn't see what was going on because Parent had become habituated to running interference and protecting Child from every blow. Parent saw every adversity as an injustice to be fought and a personal attack.
Child was bitterly unhappy, unable to function successfully and no one could help because those closest didn't see the problem. And Parent had effectively taught Child not to listen to or take criticism from anyone else. So Child was stuck and kept making choices that made the situation worse. I remember watching and thinking, "How can you do that?" but, like others, I was no longer a welcome source of advice or feedback so my hands were tied. It was very frustrating to watch and see--and not be able to help.
Everyone around Child could not believe Child or Parent could be so blind. No one could help, though, because those who cared enough to be honest were shunned and seen as the enemy.
This may seem an extreme situation, and I agree that the outcome is not common. However, it started out with very normal behaviors and giving in to very normal parental temptations. Those behaviors then became habits and it grew and grew.
This is something I try to keep in mind in my own parenting. In addition to the list of warning signs I posted earlier, I have thought of an additional sign: if you hear something from a teacher or coach, or the parent of a peer, listen. Sure, maybe they hate your child and have an axe to grind. But in my experience, that is fairly rare. Listen and watch. Maybe what they say is unfounded. But if you hear the same thing from multiple sources, you do your child no favors if you ignore it.
I realize I've been a bad blogging buddy lately. You come here and then I don't go to your blog. I feel like that one sister in the ward who always has people babysit her kids but is just never free when people need it in exchange.
So, sorry! I'm hoping things ease up a bit soon. School started, of course, and for moms that means 9 months of partial freedom. For teachers, it's just the opposite, of course.
Then, I've been working like a madman on my middle grade novel. Nights, meals, bus rides to 8th grade retreats, election speeches by class officer candidates--however, I don't work on it during Church meetings because even I have my limits.
Anyway--I want to talk about that novel for a minute.
When it was first written, it was a little over 400 pages and it was brilliant. I knew it. I read a lot in this genre and I just knew it was excellent. I had some kids read it and they loved it, too.
I knew this was good. I could see in my mind how good it was. Then I gave it to some friends to read. To my surprise, they showed me the weaknesses. Too many instances of telling not showing, way too much narrative, long passages of unnecessary explanation.
At first I was confused. They must not get my genre, I thought. And then I looked more closely. They were absolutely right.
You see, my idea is wonderful. It's interesting and a little unique. And in my mind, it works perfectly. But they, of course, couldn't see my idea. They only saw what I had translated that idea into. And the two didn't match.
I fancy myself as very self-critical and tough on myself. But because I was so tuned in to the wonderful idea, I missed the rough execution.
My friends did me a HUGE favor by helping me see my work with new eyes. And I went back and slashed and sliced ruthlessly. Any writer will know what I mean when I say that each slice felt like it was going into my heart. But the book is sooo much better now!
A few more read-throughs and I'm going to send it off and try to get an agent. This endeavor was faciliated greatly by my friends, who loved me enough to be honest. They helped me see the difference between what I wanted and intended to do and what I actually did. Good friends. May I always have those kind of friends and may I always be one of those friends! I think there is a larger parallel here, but I'm going to leave it for you all to apply. I've gotta run!
I’ve been teaching various theatre camps all summer (part of the reason I haven’t been visiting your blogs as much) and last week was Musical Theatre. One of my students was an 8th grader who graduated in June, but she came back to be my assistant and also to participate.
On Friday, we had a performance for the parents. This student was the last one to perform. She sang a very long, complicated song straight from the score of a Broadway play—not a watered-down arrangement, the real thing. And she nailed it. NAILED it! It was perfect musically and dramatically. Not "pretty good for a kid." Perfect. It’s a dramatically demanding song and she sung and acted magnificently. She couldn’t have done it better and if you had heard it, you would not have believed she was 14.
As I stood in the corner listening to her, I got a bit teary and choked up. Not only because it was beautiful—which it was. Not only because it was powerful—which it was. But because I knew what this student had gone through.
I have directed her in plays and taught her in choir and given her private lessons now for three years, so I know her fairly well.
When I first met her in 6th grade, she had a pretty voice. But she had some bad vocal habits that she developed by trying to match the pop stars she heard on the radio. And, while her voice was pretty, it wasn’t terribly strong.
Her acting and stage presence were virtually non-existent. I gave her a small, featured solo in a play that year to see how she would do. She stood there stiffly and rigid, singing softly and without any energy.
So, how did she get from that point to where she is blowing audiences away?
Part of it, to be sure, is maturity. But there is so much more than that. This student is one of the most teachable students I have ever had. She wants to learn. That means that she willingly accepted all the criticism, correction, and feedback I have ever given her. She never rationalized, justified, or argued. She hasn’t pouted, had tantrums, or even scowled or frowned when I corrected her. She works to implement whatever feedback I give her.
Because I don’t have to worry about her ego or being diplomatic or hurting her feelings, I have been free to teach her far more than I normally can. She listens and then practices what I tell her until she can apply it.
She didn’t learn by being told how wonderful she was or how great her voice was. She learned by having someone who knew more than she did critique her and tell her what she was doing wrong and how to fix it. That’s important.
Correction and seeing our flaws is not pleasant, ever, but for her, the goal of being an excellent performer is far more important than just getting warm fuzzies.
It has me thinking a lot about the way I respond to counsel and correction from those who are in a position to teach me. Especially, the Master Teacher.
P.S. I'll be up at YW Camp for most of this week, so if you don't see me on your blogs much, that's why.
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