Recently, a mom wrote to me concerned about her son and school. All his life, she had maintained a high degree of involvement in his schooling and his homework. Recently, she realized that she had become a helicopter parent, trying desperately to help her son achieve good grades.
She realized it had become no longer HIS homework but rather, THEIR homework. And she knew she was not headed in the right direction. So when he entered middle school, she decided to take a hands-off approach with his schooling. But with the first report card looming, she was feeling anxious and worried about it. Additionally, she worried that she was not setting a high enough bar for school performance with her new hands-off approach.
This mom is in what I explain to my clients as the No Man’s Land. This space, originally described by my dear friend Dr. Shefali is a barren wasteland between where we want to be based on our new-found understanding and where we are now. We find that we are no longer where we once were but we aren’ t yet where we want to be.
This No Man’s Land can feel lonely, isolated and very scary.
But this is all natural. We have taken a “leap” from where we were and do not yet have a firm footing in our new-found awareness. We must become comfortable in the discomfort while we sort things out in our new state of understanding. I imagine growth spurts for children are a lot like this. When they grow dramatically in a short period of time, they can become more clumsy than normal. Their minds must work hard to get used to this new body that has suddenly arrived.
School Work: To Help or Not To Help?
This is a great question without a clear answer. If a child has a learning disability or any other complicating factor, parents may need to have a more hands-on approach with their child’s schoolwork and homework. If there is an underlying need, it is our responsibility to help fill that need or find help from someone who can. Outside of something like that though, how much help is too much?
I remember when my children were in kindergarten. In the month of November in our town, the students bring home a cardboard cutout of a turkey. Their “homework” is to decorate the turkey at home with their families using a variety of things like buttons, glitter, feathers, or whatever else they feel inspired to use.
I was shocked when I went into school with our first kindergartener and saw the all turkeys the “students” had made. Some were sloppy and messy and adorable, clearly showing that the student was the main “designer” of the turkey. I very clearly remember one turkey that had color-patterned feathers perfectly arranged on the turkey fanning out as tail feathers. Another turkey had popsicles with feathers on the ends of them perfectly fanned out for the tail feathers. And there were others that rivaled these two in beauty and perfection.
Who did the work?
It was painfully obvious that the children in these cases were not the main planner or creator of these family turkey projects. I remember thinking what a shame that was. It was the child’s school project, they were not going to get a grade on it, and so the “end result” did not matter one bit. Yet these parents treated the project as if it was as important as a college application essay. Though I never asked the kindergarten teachers, in my opinion the purpose of that project was to allow the children to be creative, to use glue, scissors, paste and other art supplies, and to bond with their families. How can this happen when the parents are not allowing the child to run the show?
When we do everything for our children, what are we communicating to them about:
- Our belief in their ability to do the work?
- Our belief in them?
- The importance of them being in the “driver’s seat” of their academic career or really just their lives in general?
Are we raising children?
We must remember that we are not raising children. Rather, as Julie Lythcott-Haims explains, we are actually raising adults. Our mission as parents should be to continuously work to “cut the apron strings” a little more and a little more at every appropriate opportunity as they grow. And this begins as early as when they take their first step. We would be well-served to remember that each step they take from that tender young age is actually a step away from us and towards independence. And each “step” both literally and figuratively along the way is a step towards increasing freedom for them.
It does not serve children well when they leave for college or their first apartment for that to be the time that they first experience complete freedom. Those kids tend to be the ones who become raging alcoholics, party all the time and/or flunk out of school. One girl in my dorm in college actually finished her freshman year in rehab.
So where is that line?
Freedom tastes delicious for every single one of us. But if we don’t give it to our children in small but gradually increasing doses, the consequences could be disastrous. But that fine line is different for everyone.
So back to the mom who wrote to me. She had taken a complete hands-off approach as her son entered middle school. This time of life is one of the most challenging times for a child. Their bodies are changing rapidly and all their peers bodies are also changing, many at wildly different rates. They may look and sound different one day to the next. But the changes are not only physical. I explained to my daughter that kids in middle school try out different personalities, hairstyles and friends sometimes as quickly as they change their clothes. They are continuing that daunting task of breaking free from their parents and figuring out where mom and dad “end” and they begin as an individual.
The Middle Years
Middle school is not really a time to take a huge step back. But a parent can and should take another incremental step back. And how big that step back actually is must be determined by the parent’s objective assessment of how much their child is ready for a reduction in the “support system” around them.
We cannot just “hang our kids out to dry.” But we also cannot be driving to college to wake them up each day either as Julie Lythcott-Haims says. If this topic seems tough or scary to you, I’d love to help you navigate this process in a way that is most supportive to both you and your child. Connect with me!