How to Not Help Your Child

How to NOT Help Your Child
How to NOT Help Your Child

When our children are little they require our help for everything! We must feed and bathe, teach and clothe, carry and calm for years. And years.

We love our children fiercely, and do all of these things for them with a willing heart (most of the time). These acts of service become second nature. I often anticipate what my daughter needs before she says a word.

Which can make it challenging to step back; to not help our child. But this is exactly what they need as they grow.

The toddler years are years of independence: of tremendous learning and developmental growth. Our children will begin to push us away (often when we least appreciate it–middle of the grocery store I’m looking at you). They cling to us fiercely at the same time and this dichotomy makes for struggles.

Important, necessary struggles. Our role as new parent–the one who does everything for our child–is changing. We must grow our parenting skills and allow our children to do more for themselves. As the push and pull of needing us and needing to do it themselves continues, our role is to support.

It is hard and time-consuming and sometimes heart-stopping to allow kids to do things themselves. Especially for the first time. Or the first seventeen times. We practice patience, faith, and discernment in this process.

How to Not Help Your Child

Don’t interfere. Wait for them to ask. 

As we watch our child attempt to zip his coat for the first time, our nimble fingers itch with the desire to help. We will notice more and more opportunities for allowing our child to attempt new things. Buttoning coats, climbing stairs, carrying items, opening doors…possibilities are endless!

On our end this requires time. Allow extra wiggle time in your schedule so zipping of the coat can take seven minutes. If we squeeze our days too full we’ll need those seven minutes to make it to the doctor’s appointment. (this is not to say we stop everything every time to practice zipping…try to make room here and there, and if you’re in a hurry one time, bring out the coat on the next rainy afternoon)

We must also prepare to be with frustration. Learning new things is hard and sometimes quite infuriating for little ones. It is tempting to step in the moment our child experiences an ounce of frustration. We fight this urge and hold our tongues. Watch your child and wait for them to ask for help.

Ask what help they need. 

When our child does ask for help, the best question I’ve found is: “what part can I help you with?” Rather than jumping in and resolving the situation for our child, observe their process. Note where they are struggling. Before you even move to assist them, ask questions and offer suggestions.

For our child with the coat zipper, watch where he is struggling. Is it getting it latched at the bottom? Could you suggest that he use a different hand to hold one end? Does he need to move the zipper all the way to the bottom to line it up?

Offer encouragement by saying “let’s try again”. This is another favorite phrase, along with “what else could we try?” (when my daughter is playing with her toys, I often overhear her say “try again” and this is one of my most triumphant parenting moments) We want to grow gritty kids that don’t give up the moment it is hard.

If they can’t get the zipper to latch, maybe we guide their hands. Or maybe we allow them to watch us do it slowly several times and then try again. And maybe we need to latch it for a bit longer, and allow them to pull the zipper to the top–a team effort.

Assess the risk. Offer guidance.

And when are kids are ready to try potentially dangerous or injury-producing things without help we work extra hard! We want to protect our kids, but we want them to grow! (the parenting dilemma at every turn) If possible, start small with things that are more comfortable for you.

Allow your child to climb the small bars that still make you a bit nervous, but wouldn’t lead to serious injury if they fell. Kids are usually well aware of their limitations if given room to test them out safely.

If your child is attempting something that you know they aren’t ready for remind them by asking “do you think your body is ready to do that yet?” or saying firmly “your body isn’t quite ready to do that yet, we can find something else to climb.” (it’s important to add the “yet”, so they know that one day they will be able to do this, and they don’t get deterred from trying!) This happens for us at the fireman’s pole at the playground quite often. At twenty months she isn’t nearly dexterous enough for this (or tall enough), but she often stands there putting her toes over the edge, while I stand spotting below.

Our long-term parenting goals for our children most likely include independence, perseverance, strength, and competence. They need to practice challenging things as small children in order to achieve these goals as adults. They need us to NOT help them. (for a little bit anyway–there’s always time to do kind things for our kids who appreciate help in a task they’ve mastered). Here’s to helping our kids…by not helping all the time!