I grew up in a home full of love and support. I was surrounded by people who only wanted what was best for me – but sometimes, the way that played out actually had the opposite of the intended effect.
In an effort to make sure that I never had to hurt or struggle, my mom would step in to “fix” things for me.
Whether that was attempting to patch up disagreements I had with my friends, pay debts I’d accrued on my own, or giving me whatever I asked for, I never had to do things on my own.
Because of this, I never learned how to cope with sadness or uncomfortable feelings because I was so often shielded from them.
This protection, of course, came from a good place.
But as an adult, I found myself wholly unprepared to deal with the world. I crashed and burned pretty hard, and it’s been an uphill battle to learn how to be an independent, grown up person.
When I became a parent last year, I promised myself (and my child) that I would do everything I could do avoid some of the same mistakes that my own parents had made when I was growing up.
What I know now, but I didn’t know at the time is that I grew up with helicopter parents, which is really just a trendy name for parents who are over-involved in their children’s lives.
It’s important to note that helicopter parents mean well and want what’s best for their children. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be so involved with their children to begin with.
They may think they’re being helpful, like my mom did.
But oftentimes, helping your child means letting them fail or struggle or hurt. And that might feel really, really hard – because as parents, we want to shield our kids from having to feel pain.
But it’s that pain and struggle that will actually help them become healthy adults with coping skills and the ability to navigate the world on their own.
An important question to ask yourself also is: When you’re trying to minimize the pain that your child experiences, whose pain is it really about?
As a parent, it hurts when your child hurts. But is our desire to stop their pain more about stopping our own pain in that moment, or is it really about their best interest?
Because if it’s about a desire for ourselves to not have to feel discomfort, that’s ultimately a pretty selfish thing to do. When we’re more concerned about fixing how we feel, even if that comes at the expense of someone else, that action becomes about us.
Not only that, but recent studies have actually found that the effects of over-involved parenting can be pretty harsh. Kids whose parents are too involved or controlling are more likely to suffer from depression or anxiety.
With that in mind, here are some things that we should be doing as parents to be helpful, even if doing the opposite sometimes feels better.
Because even if it feels hard, there are some things that we should avoid doing as parents if we want to give our kids the skills they need to be successful adults.
1. Let Them Do Their Own Homework
Helping your kid with their homework when they have a question isn’t a bad thing. Neither is helping them develop a habit of sitting down and doing it every evening before (or after) dinner.
But what about actually doing their homework for them? A recent survey in the UK found one in four parents admitting to completing at least some of their children’s homework for them.
And it makes sense that, as a parent, you might want to ease the burden your kid is carrying. And if they’re homework is stressing them out, taking some of it off their plate may seem like a good solution.
When I was growing up, I often received help – including sometimes having things like science projects or dioramas practically done for me.
But research shows that it isn’t actually helpful.
One study found that “when parents from various racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups regularly helped their child with homework, it made no difference for the child’s improvement in their test scores in reading, math, and their grades.”
In fact, the study actually found that regular help with homework even compromised achievement in grades for white, black, and non-Mexican Hispanic children.
2. Let Them Fail a Test
Does this mean you shouldn’t remind your kid that they have a test the next day and it might be a good idea to study? Or gently mention their upcoming recital that they may want to practice for?
No, of course not.
But it does mean that if you’ve given them a few gentle reminders, your job is done. There comes a point when they have to learn what the consequences of not studying or practicing are.
And it’s up to them whether or not they want to accept those consequences.
As a parent, it might be hard to let your child walk away from their books when you know they should be studying. You, of course, know what will happen when they go to take the test.
But they have to find out on their own.
I graduated high school with a 4.7 GPA and went to college on an academic scholarship – which I very nearly lost after my grades were a disaster my very first semester at college because I had no idea how to manage my time or meet deadlines on my own.
When your kids grow up, they won’t have people to remind them constantly that their bills are due or that they have a big project to turn in at work.
Are you going to be standing over their shoulder in their cubicle to push them to meet their deadlines? Probably not.
And since – I hope – you won’t be accompanying them to work (or college), it’s up to you to help them learn how to motivate themselves – and deal with any consequences that come as a result of being inadequately prepared for something.
If someone had done that for me, I may not have struggled so much when I got to college.
3. Let Them Fight Their Own Battles
When I was 27 years old, I was planning my wedding. I was on the phone with my lifelong best friend, venting about the fact that my mother was trying to take control of the wedding.
My friend laughed and said, “Well, of course she is. Do you remember when she used to call me when we were in a fight and beg me not to be mad at you anymore?”
No, I didn’t remember.
I had no idea that my mother had been inserting herself into my relationships. When I brought it up to her, she was unapologetic.
“I was doing what I thought was right. You were hurting, and I just wanted to make sure your friend didn’t give up on you. I’m not going to apologize for that.”
You probably won’t be surprised to learn that I haven’t always had the healthiest relationships with other people. I never learned how to resolve my own fights, to have mature conversations with friends when we had disagreements, or be in a relationship with equal give and take.
Fights with friends are hard – and they hurt. But it’s not our job as parents to make that hurt go away.
However, it is our job to help walk our child through coping with those feelings and talking things through with them so they can figure out the best way to make things right with their friend.
Their relationships are their own. They don’t belong to us, as parents.
And when we intervene, we might actually be sending our kids the message that they aren’t capable of doing it themselves.
Giving them the tools to communicate with friends helps empower them in their relationships and improves their communication and conflict resolution. It gives them the ability to be adults with strong relationships.
The exception here being if they are being bullied and you need to step in for their own safety and well-being. That’s a completely different (and valid) scenario.
4. Let Them Have a Messy Room
If your kid refuses to clean their room, even if it’s one of their chores, it might be tempting to just do it for them.
“Ugh, it has to get done some time, and if they’re not going to do it, I guess it falls on me.” Right?
I was never forced to clean up after myself. My room was a disaster, but I never picked it up because I knew that someone else would do it.
And what happened is that I became a college student and then an adult who did not know how to keep a house in any way.
I couldn’t keep things off the floors, I couldn’t put things where they belonged, I couldn’t do dishes, I couldn’t do laundry. I was incapable of being functional.
Now, there’s a difference between messy and dirty. And messy is okay.
If your child has their own room, it’s their space. If they want to live in the mess, let them. If and when they get sick of it, they’ll have to pick it up themselves.
Some people prefer the mess; it’s more comfortable for them that way. I’m still someone who prefers my home just a little bit “lived in.”
And not only that, but by allowing their space to belong to them, you’re teaching them valuable lessons about boundaries, trust, and privacy.
Of course, if they don’t have their own room, there are valuable lessons to be taught about respecting shared space.
But either way, if they know they don’t have to pick up after themselves, they’ll never learn how to do it. And one day, that will make them a terrible roommate.
5. Give Them an Allowance (And Make Them Stick to It)
Growing up, I never learned the value of money. If I wanted something, I got it. If I spent more than my allotted allowance, I was given extra.
I recognize the class privilege inherent in having enough money for my parents to do that. It’s also important to note that overinvolved parenting in general often comes with a degree of class privilege, as parents need to have the time and/or the money to be overinvolved.
But this came back to bite me in the ass when I turned eighteen, got a bunch of credit cards, and destroyed my credit. I also routinely spent my rent money on shoes, clothes, or booze.
Not every family has the financial ability to give their kid an allowance, even if it’s five dollars per week. But there are ways for kids to earn money, like doing odd jobs for neighbors.
And if your kid isn’t taught the value of that money, it’s hard for them to be a financially responsible adult.
It’s taken me years (and marrying someone who does people’s finances for a living) to be able to manage my money and stop overdrawing my bank account. My credit is still horrific.
If your child runs out of money for the month, that means they can’t go to the movie with their friend because they didn’t budget properly. If they’ve spend their allotted clothing budget for the season, they don’t get that trendy new coat they want.
I didn’t understand this; if I overspent, I was always give “just a few more dollars.”
This doesn’t translate to necessities like shoes that fit or weather-appropriate clothing, but for their non-necessary splurge items, teaching them to save up for them is a valuable lesson.
6. Let Them Have Their Extracurricular Activities As ‘No-Pressure’ Zones
When I was growing up, I used to take gymnastics and cheerleading. My mother watched every practice intently.
On the drive home, she always tried to be “helpful” by letting me know all of the things I had done wrong and ways in which I could improve my skills. Eventually I grew resentful and even asked her to stop watching me practice.
Becoming over-involved in your child’s hobbies is not necessarily likely to make them any more successful at them.
In fact, research shows that elite athletes actually don’t usually receive pressure from their parents in regards to winning or rankings – they have a love of their sport and parents that support them in that.
Extracurricular activities are about so much more than achievement. They’re about building relationships, growing self-esteem, finding enjoyable outlets.
Putting pressure on them to be something they’re not isn’t helpful. In fact, it might make their self-esteem suffer as they worry about not being good enough or disappointing you.
I was so desperate to get away from the pressure I’d felt as an all-star athlete that I turned down the chance to join the team at the college I attended. The sport had been ruined for me because it never felt like something I was allowed to do for fun.
Maybe your kid is the worst on the team. So what if they are? Are they having fun? Are they learning a lot? That’s what’s important.
7. Let Them Face Their Feelings of Anxiety
If your child is feeling anxious about doing something and doesn’t want to go, it may be tempting to give in and let them stay home.
But a new study shows that that may actually contribute to a child’s anxiety and make them more likely to develop an anxiety disorder later in life.
The trick is not to help them avoid anxiety, but to teach them to cope with their anxiety. And in order to learn to cope with those feelings, they actually have to experience them.
I’m working on this with my Very Cautious child. It’s tempting for me to to remove her from situations when she gets upset. And sometimes I do.
But I’m also working on helping her move at her pace, while reassuring her that it’s okay and that she can do big things on her own.
Anxiety is usually the result of excessive worry – and often overestimation – of the danger involved with a situation. And like anxiety treatments for adults, like exposure therapy, facing the fear can be the best way to conquer it.
Does that mean forcing your child to do something that they’re terrified of? No, of course not. But it does mean walking them through their fear, standing alongside them, and showing them that they can do it, instead of letting them avoid it altogether.
And I know from experience – I was able to avoid feeling anxious and it left me unable to make phone calls about simple but important things like bills or work.
It also meant that I avoided anything that might be hard and, as a result, I was almost arrested for non-payment of credit card debt – all because I was too scared to open my mail.
Having someone to show me that facing my fears wouldn’t kill me would have been really helpful.
Ultimately, I want to avoid making the same mistakes my parents made while raising my own children. That’s what we all want, right?
I recognize that I was raised by people who loved me and wanted what was best for me. But sometimes doing what’s best means doing what’s hard.
It’s a lesson that I’ve learned through my journey towards independence – and if I can use that knowledge to make sure that my kids grow up to be self-sufficient, then it will have been completely worth it.
Britni de la Cretaz is a Feature Writer for Everyday Feminism. She is a feminist momma, community organizer, freelance writer, and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. She’s a founding member of Safe Hub Collective. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc. Read her articles here.