Nurturing but letting kids tumble is the best strategy for parents

Nurturing your child constantly can stifle their growing independence. Remember that development is both internal and external.

Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
Nurturing your child also includes letting them stand on their own two feet. Two-year-old Charles Kearley helps his parents shop for pumpkins at Stribling Orchard in Markham, Virginia, October 6, 2012.

Many of today’s parents fear that if they don’t give their children the right push out of the crib, they will not make it in this world of high-powered over-achievers. The fear is that anything less than a Harvard post-graduate degree will leave our children on the corner asking for spare change. The days of sending kids out to play to fend for themselves for hours on end are long gone. Instead we register our kids for music, French, math and gymnastics classes before they can walk, trying to give them the edge.

Multiple research studies have shown that parents who hold firm but nurturing standards and let go enough to give their children autonomy raise children who do better academically, psychologically, and socially than either over-involved parents who push their children toward achievement or under-involved and permissive parents who set too few limits.

Dr. Carol Dweck of Stanford University studied children’s motivation by giving them simple puzzles they had no problem putting together. Some were told how smart and capable they were, others were not told anything. The ones who were left alone were more motivated to try more difficult puzzles and showed more confidence in their progress and ability.

Even so, parents have a hard time letting go of what they think will give their kids a head start. Media and marketing doesn’t help to convince parents to buy less and allow their children to discover without all the bells and whistles. We give, we praise, we register in program after program hoping…for what? That our child will be rich and famous?

Our goal is to instill self-motivation and confidence in our children to get through the hard stuff. They don’t need the way paved for them. They need our support and encouragement to deal with feelings of discouragement and disappointment, even failure so they can push themselves through the messiness to accomplishment. This is the sweet spot of self-esteem. It cannot be given to a child; it must come from within.

We give that confidence with trust—trust in our child’s developmental process, timing, and ability. That means knowing your child and being willing to stand back and watch. If it is too hard for you to let go of controlling what your children do, say, think and feel – of trying to make your children happy – then you might be a toxic parent.

Here are a few tips to check yourself:

  • Can you watch your child fall, get a scraped knee or a bruised ego and simply be there for consolation without jumping to the rescue or trying to protect hurts from ever happening?
  • Instead of praising with “Good job”, “You’re terrific” or “Good girl” can you stop yourself, think about what your child is doing and either say nothing to normally expected behavior or be specific? “You put that puzzle piece in without any help,” “I really appreciate your help with that grocery bag.”
  • Can you be a sounding board to listen when your child has a problem or do you jump in and tell her what to do about it?
  • Can you allow your child to get to accomplishment on her own or do you direct and correct so you are sure she gets it right?
  • Are you able to simply be with your child without teaching something all the time?

Let your child grow. Development needs to happen from the inside out. Remember that the whole oak tree is present in the tiny acorn. What it needs to grow is the proper soil, water, sunshine and temperature. It doesn’t need any internal adjustment.

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If you find yourself short on trust, the work to do is within yourself. It will not come with pushing your child to achieve. That is your cue that you are trying to make yourself feel better.

Ask, “Am I trying to meet my needs or my child’s needs? Am I the one who wants the gold star and best parent of the year award?”

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