Last week I wrote a post in which I suggested that many parents were causing problems for their children by coddling them far too much. The basic idea was that many parents habitually intervene, solving their child’s problems instead of allowing their child the growth that comes with solving their own problems and dealing with unpleasant consequences. I suggested that parents might usefully see themselves as coaches instead of shock absorbers, coaching their child on how to solve their problems instead of intervening.
The response to this post was gratifying and I received a lot of very good feedback. Along with that feedback, a number of people asked if there were ever times to intervene and so I wanted to spend a little time on that today. If we accept the idea that children should usually solve their own problems and experience the consequences of their bad decisions, when should a parent jump in?
Obviously, there is no hard and fast rule that will be universally true with every child. Still, my experience as a teacher (in which I've watched other people's mistakes) and a parent (in which I've made my own mistakes) suggests a few principles.
Let’s begin with this premise: when you solve your child’s problems for them, or when you intervene in their life, you are doing harm. You are robbing your child of the ability to develop problem-solving skills and to gain the confidence and growth that comes with solving problems for his or herself.
So, every intervention has a potentially negative side effect. Like medicine, however, sometimes those side effects might be a worthwhile trade-off. So, I think you have to approach every situation by asking if the benefit outweighs the side effects. Is the situation so important that assuring a specific outcome outweighs the negative consequences of intervening?
Let me give two examples. A few years ago, my son was playing football and injured his back. The doctor said he could continue to work out with the team provided he avoided some specific lifts. The coach, however, put pressure on my son to continue those lifts.
In my opinion, this was a case where parental intervention was warranted. The potential for my son to have long term back problems far outweighed my concerns that he learn to solve his own problems.
Another child struggled for a number of years with an authority figure. This particular child encountered the authority figure frequently and was convinced the authority figure disliked them. This child asked us to intervene but we refused. We offered suggestions and coaching but never actually intervened. We felt like this was a case where the long-term consequences were not sufficiently grave to overrule the child’s chance to learn and grow.
Not every case is as clear-cut as those two. I have noticed a lot of parents get a bit tied in knots when the actual situation is minimal, but could have potential long-term implications. For example: The child in question failed a test. The parents concede one bad grade is not a big deal. However, failing that test might lead to the child being removed from an advanced math class and that could have problems for getting into a good college, etc .
The problem is that if you apply this sort of “if/then” thinking, you can get worked up about anything. Almost any normal bump in the road can be a crisis if you project in a straight-line about the potential consequences. “If she gets kicked out of honors math, then she won’t be considered for Valedictorian. If she isn’t Valedictorian, then she won’t be as competitive for college…” If you have to go more than two if/thens into the future, chances are that the situation is not all that serious.
There’s another question, though. Let’s accept the premise that failing a math test means your child won’t get into a good college. That might mean that child is not a good fit for that college. Put another way, colleges accept/reject potential students because they think those students will succeed or fail there. If constant parental intervention is the only way your child will get into a particular school, chances are that your child will not be successful or happy there.
The reality is that getting a degree from a top tier college is not a requirement to having a happy, fulfilling life and successful career.
However, having the ability to solve one’s own problems, having confidence, and being strong enough to experience and overcome adversity are requirements to having happy, fulfilling lives and successful careers.
Think about that for a minute. In intervening in order to help their children with ultimately unimportant achievements, coddling parents actually are sabotaging what they hope for their child: a good life.
The reality is that most successful people have struggled, usually greatly before achieving success. In fact, I don’t think I have heard of a super-successful person who did not go through a period of profound difficulty, usually more than one.
I do not believe that a bad test grade, or even a bad report card grade will really ruin a child’s life for years to come.
So, when should you intervene?
1. When your child is in danger of physical injury.
2. When your child is in an asymmetrical conflict with important stakes. For example, if your child is in a serious conflict with an authority figure, you might need to level the playing field. I would not assume this is the case, though. In fact, I would assume this is not the case until I had convincing and repeated evidence. Note that both the asymmetry of power and the important stakes matter. I had a child once who had a teacher that didn’t like her. I didn’t believe her at first, but over time came to think that the teacher just really didn’t like her. However, the teacher in question didn’t grade her unfairly or anything. It was unpleasant, but not serious, so we just let it ride. It was a good experience for her growth. Sadly, not everyone will like us through our lives. Had the teacher consistently graded her unfairly because he didn’t like her, then I might have gotten involved.
3. When a decision has a serious chance to cause long-term and irreparable damage to your child (note: claiming emotional damage because they didn’t get playing time or didn’t get a good part in the play does not count).
A caution: if I am totally honest, I will admit that my feelings are closely tied up in my children. If someone hurts them, I feel it. If someone is unkind or unfair, I feel it. Consequently, it is so easy to end up responding based on how I feel. Sadly, when I do this, I am almost always wrong. Responding to situations because I feel emotionally involved almost guarantees I will make the wrong decision.
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