When my daughter, Brooke, was one she got up from the kitchen floor, opened the screen door and went for a walk out the driveway. Instead of stopping her, I decided to follow. Today, a political science professor, she travels the world helping women empower themselves.
Fulltime college students at the time, her mother and I were as concerned about our own future as we were about hers, and did not do for her what she could do for herself out of self-defense.
She’d be lying on her back on the bedroom floor trying to turn over while I was typing a paper at the desk by the window, hoping that she would be engaged long enough for me to get to the end of the page before demanding my attention again. When I started to hear signs of stress coming from her, I didn’t rush to her aid. Looking out of the corner of my eye, and noticing that she was struggling to turn over on to her stomach, I kept on typing hoping she wouldn’t need me.
Even when the sounds of struggle went from whimpering to whining, I powered on through my own problems only stopping when the whining turned into full-blown crying—the kind that parents are constitutionally incapable of ignoring.
Turning over, crawling, standing up, walking—Brooke could fairly claim that she did all these things on her own. No surprise that she felt entirely confident to take her first journey out of the house without even looking at me.
But to tell the truth, my respect for her autonomy was based on more than self-interest; I actually believed in it. Even at the age of 22 I believed in self-determination. I thought that I should never do for her what she could do for herself, and that all children would prefer the struggle of doing things themselves to the luxury of having someone do it for them. That this theory was self-serving doesn’t mean it was bad for my children. You’d have to ask them, but I know they all felt trusted, and as grownups left the nest.
Today, as we hear that kids on college campuses are texting their parents every day, calling their parents for advice about nasty roommates, emailing them drafts of papers to ask for help, I am reconfirmed in what became policy for me as I spent the next 45 years raising children and running schools: never do for a child what he can do for himself.
When kids are little, their first choice with most things is to do it for themselves. I remember starting to peel a banana for Katie as she sat in her high chair, and hearing her say, “Self do it.” Once when I started to cut up a banana (we liked bananas in our house) she reached out for the knife saying, “Self do it.” I let her. She said, “Self do it,” so often that her nickname became “Self.”
Of course, children need us to be there for them and to teach them how to tie their shoes, pick up after themselves, and ride a bike. However, by the age of three they are dying to show us that they can do adult things: rake leaves, bake muffins, do laundry. Maybe none of our four children went through the “terrible two’s” because they had no doubts about their own autonomy, and found joy in helping us.
Today, there seems to be an epidemic of entitlement and helplessness among our young. Employers talk about the social incompetence of a young work force more focused on what they are entitled to rather than on the work the company expects of them. Sally Koslow’s research (Slouching Toward Adulthood: Observations from the Not-so-Empty Nest, Viking, 2013) agrees.
“Gateway Parenting” is Wendy Calise’s new theory calling our attention to the dangers of saying, “Yes” because it’s easy rather than “No” because it’s hard. She says: “Once you start doing for your children what they can do for themselves, there is a tragic feedback loop: The less your child does for himself, the less you think he is able to do. The less you think he is able to do, the less he thinks he is able to do. The less he thinks he is able, the more convincing he becomes to you that he is not.”
A great deal of parenting advice these days focuses on the importance of loving children through high involvement. Building self-confidence in our children comes primarily from accolades, attention and “attachment.”
Certainly our children need to know we love them unconditionally, but how that love is expressed makes all the difference. “Love your child.” begs the question: “How?” In considering “How?” consider this: our children’s self-confidence will be a function of two things: the incidence of tackling increasingly difficult challenges on their own, and the experience of making a difference to others. In short: self-directed and other oriented.
A high incidence of self-directed decision making is essential for developing all seven of Ellen Galinsky’s life skills.
But what about reading, writing, mathematics and all those academic skills? see them as some of the many vehicle for giving kids challenges that give them opportunities to learn these life skills.