How many of us remember teaching our children to tie their shoes? I know some of you are guiltily considering the years your kids wore Velcro sneakers, but I digress. When I taught my kids to tie their shoes it was an exercise in frustration... mine. They do it so slowly! I would forget to add the extra five minutes to the morning routine and be exasperated standing there watching them try and try again with those godforsaken bunny ear loops. But, I managed my frustration and my anxiety about being late and allowed them to master the skill... eventually.
This experience is a great example of how we need to learn to empower our kids. For much of their lives, at least much of the part that they will spend living in our homes, we are better than they are. What do I mean by better? I mean that we are more accomplished. We can tie shoes faster; we can dress them faster than they can dress themselves. We can write the alphabet faster; we can color the maps in faster.... You get the idea. Yet, despite our obvious superiority in those areas, we know not to interfere. We recognize the need to allow our young children to develop those independent skills and we give them space (and time) to do it. We enable them to develop their competencies and confidence.
Unfortunately, as they develop, some of us forget these principles and we interfere in the spirit of support. Let me clarify. Your 9th grader comes home from school complaining that his math teacher is the worst teacher ever. You want details. You can't believe that your child will be subjected to this teacher all year. S/he is so hard, so unfair and likely not to give them an "A" (gasp, shudder). You conduct your own private research, reaching out to other parents to confirm information. Then you get involved with the school. You negotiate a schedule change. You advocate for your kid. Wrong. This kind of engagement is not advocacy; rather, it disempowers our children and teaches them that we don't think they can handle the challenges they face. If we want to build resilient, confident kids, we need to resist the desire to rescue and let them manage these situations. That is not to say that we can't support their efforts. We can and should sit with them, hear their concerns and help them consider ways to approach the problem. We can role-play with them to prep them for a face to face with the teacher or the Dean of Students. We can offer up ideas to help them consider alternative approaches. But, we have to stay out of it. This isn't easy.
I have had ample opportunity to practice this skill and my instinct every time these situations arise is to get involved. I am a powerful force and I can help get it done. Yet, if I do get involved, the consequences are grave. I will have told my child through my actions that I don't think they can handle the issue themselves. I will have smoothed the path in front of them, which ultimately handicaps them, because they don't learn how to navigate a bumpy road. And we all know that life presents a lot of bumpy roads! So don't call the school. Resist the temptation to fix the problem. Just last year, I found myself in this exact situation. Parents were rallying, emails were flying and kids were being transferred out of that class every day. After another poor test grade, my son asked me why I wasn't getting him moved out of the class. "I have confidence in you," I replied. "I know that you will figure it out." Ultimately, he decided he needed a tutor, and I helped him find one. He did figure it out and he came out of the year assured about his aptitude and empowered for the rest of his high school years. Our kids need to be confident in their abilities to navigate the world and resilient enough to tolerate their failures.
If we continue to insert ourselves into their lives whenever things don't go their way, we do not give them room to develop the skills they need. There will be another hard teacher, or a bad boss, or an unfair supervisor. It is vital that they have ample opportunity to learn how to tolerate, manage or even just survive these experiences. Obviously, if there is abuse or another unsafe situation, we need to protect our children. But, more often than not, we engage under the guise of advocacy when we really need to step back. Be there to listen, help them consider options, be empathic about their experience, but let them negotiate the solution.
Remember the look on their faces when they learned to tie their shoes? Remember their delight in that success? You stood over them and allowed them to master that skill. Now, stand by them and let them master another one.