When our children are little, we are their cheerleaders, praising them for their efforts to learn new skills and to try again when they don't succeed the first time.
At some point - ideally before middle school - we need to become coaches. We need to teach our children strategy and then step back and let them make their own decisions. Our job is to be there when they need advice and listen to their problems. We need to ask them what we think they are going to do and not give them the answers.
It is when parents don't make the transition from cheerleader to coach that they become helicopter parents. Those parents that do things for children that they can already do for themselves or even the things that children can almost do for themselves are sending a very clear message to their children: You can't get by in this world without me.
In addition to that sentiment not being true or fair, it is also damaging our children when they become adults.
A recent study from Brigham Young shows that extra love and warmth from parents can't make up for the damage done by helicopter parenting styles. Another study indicates that there is a strong correlation between helicopter parents and college students battling depression. Think about it: If your child has never had to negotiate for anything in their life without mom or dad's help, then how are they going to know how to deal with an awful roommate, a difficult professor or even a bad romantic relationship on their own?
I guess the question is: Are you raising an adult or are you raising someone who is completely dependent on you for the rest of your life? And, if it is the second category, what is going to happen when you die?
Parents can overcome any damage that they already have done, but it is a hard road: Basically letting their child continuously fail until they come to the conclusion that they have to start making their own life choices. That's a harsh road to go down. So, even though my son is only five, I am taking steps with him now:
- His stuff. His responsibility. I am not keeping track of his bookbag, toys or possessions. If he wants to get rid of an item, it is his choice. If he forgot to bring a water gun on splash pad day, that is his bad planning.
- Strategy games. We are starting to play more and more strategy board games together. When he is first learning, we will point out different choices he could make, but he still has the final decision. When he knows all the rules and the game's objective, we do not "let" him win. Sometimes he beats us, sometimes he doesn't.
- Household responsibilities. He is in charge of more than just his stuff. He is in charge of helping with household chores and feeding the cat at dinner and other jobs. We challenge him with new tasks, even before we are sure he is ready for them. He might fail, but - more importantly - he might succeed.
- We talk about decisions. If he has a bad day, we will talk about the consequences of our actions and then leave it at that. Sometimes bad choices are their own punishments.