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Parenting tip #324: Don’t be indispensable

When we had our first child, there were naturally things that I did better or things that my husband did better. And quickly, as new exhausted parents, we fell into a trap: We let ourselves become indispensable.

It took me years to understand how dangerous this trap is. A few successes in packing snacks for my kids going on an outing with their dad, and suddenly my packing snacks became a necessary part of each outing. My husband puts a child to bed successfully with no bedtime call-backs and no nighttime wake-ups, and it becomes his de facto job.

Both of our kids were pretty inflexible about a change in plans when they were little. In preschool jargon, this is called “difficulty with transitions.” My husband and I joked that our kids could set up a non-negotiable new tradition in our household just by experiencing something once. So if I once put chocolate milk powder into a child’s milk, suddenly, they had always wanted chocolate milk powder, they will always want chocolate milk powder, and the world will end if we’re out of it and they want milk.

When you have kids higher on the intensity scale, you know how easy it is to fall into this trap: One time things go better getting a kid out the door if you get his jacket and shoes and help him put them on, and suddenly you are a slave to the jacket and shoes routine. You know that every child-rearing book on the planet is reminding you that it’s best to let kids muddle through doing things on their own, yet you also know that the doctor’s appointment is in 15 minutes, you have a ten-minute drive, and somehow it always takes at least 5 minutes to exit the door and sit down in the car with a seatbelt on.

So you let yourself become indispensable one more time.

(‘Just this once won’t hurt’ is, of course, the addict’s refrain.)

Both of my kids are double-digits now, and you’d think it would become easier to keep from being indispensable. But even with older kids, it’s easy to fall into the trap.  I still find myself working hard against my mothering need to “make it all better” for my kids. I see them struggling through something and know that I could do it better, faster, easier. Or I find myself doing something that I really should have them do, just because it’s more expedient. Or I give in to a demand that we both know is unreasonable, and once I give in, suddenly it’s my responsibility to take on the task—even when you have teens, a repetition of one can set a new routine that’s hard to break.

Recent research has shown what parents have known (and ignored) for eons: when you let kids muddle through, not only do they become more self-sufficient, but they actually learn better and more deeply. Part of parenting is knowing when to step back: when to let the other parent put a child to bed even if it results in a tantrum, when to shrug and say “that’s life” when kids make ridiculous demands, when not to help even if you know things will go better.

For my part, I had to do it again this morning. Having been presented with a demand that I simply could not fulfill, I just had to answer, “Hm, I wonder how you will solve that dilemma.” My mothering instinct was screaming at me to make it all better, but at least I knew I had science on my side!

Posted in Parenting.

2 Responses

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  1. Donna says

    It is difficult to stand back and not make things better for our kids. Letting them practice problem solving small issues when they are young is important for developing more resilient, mature adults later. I enjoy reading your posts.

    • Suki says

      Thanks! I totally agree about letting them face challenges while young so they can be more resilient – and self-reliant. I’ll never forget the two young women in my dorm in college who had both had maids at home. One of them asked me how to make a bed – she literally couldn’t figure out how to put the sheet on. And over winter break, they followed instructions and unplugged their fridge to save electricity. Unfortunately, it didn’t occur to them that they should take the food out first! Somewhere in a box I have a photo of the lovely formations that they discovered inside their fridge when they returned. Clearly, their parents did them no favors by not asking them to do household chores!

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