Whether it’s sleep training, shoe tying, or school projects, there are thousands of moments when parents have to sit on their hands and let their children struggle. We know it’s important for them to learn things on their own, but watching them cry and writhe through a challenge is one of hardest tasks of parenthood.
Ironically, it’s our wonderful and natural parental instinct that makes it so tough to stop ourselves from helping. The drive that pushes us to comfort a crying baby; visit the emergency room instead of giggling when a toddler eats a ball bearing (that was my Christmas break 2008); or insist that a cranky preteen finish just one bite of cauliflower is the same drive that makes us want to jump in and fight every fight for them.
It feels loving to help, but often we’re doing more harm than good by not allowing our kids to develop their own ways of working things out. This could be finding their hand to suck on when they’re trying to fall asleep; devising a story about helpful stuffed animals when they’re scared at night; or figuring out a hard math problem on their own. Kids come up with the most amazing coping techniques—that is, when they’re allowed and encouraged to engage a challenge by themselves.
What’s important here is to differentiate between struggling and suffering. Suffering is agonizing. It’s pain without an end goal of benefiting from the pain. Struggle, instead, is distress with a purpose. It’s a learning process, and as such it’s crucial to development. Challenges benefit kids in all these ways: by teaching them self-soothing tools, by increasing frustration tolerance, by building problem solving skills, by boosting self-confidence, and by improving independent thinking.
Knowing this, it becomes clear that half our work as parents is to soothe our own anxieties so we can more effectively help our kids—by watching from the sidelines. It’s crucial to remember that by stepping out of the way of our children’s development, we’re not abandoning them. The mom who sleep trains is not giving her child the message she no longer loves him; the dad who lets his daughter get a “C” on a test is not neglecting her education. Instead, being a supporting, encouraging presence who trusts a kid enough to make his or her own mistakes, and then learn from them, instills more confidence in the child.
In my practice, I’ve noticed that anxieties about parenting tend to fall into the same three categories. When I ask, “What are you afraid of when it comes to watching your child wrestle with a new challenge?” parents often answer, “My partner fights me about how to discipline,” or, “It looks so easy for everyone else, so why is it so tough for me?” or, “I immediately think, we’re never going to get through this.”
The first example has to do with couples issues. The key to success in parenting is presenting a united front between the parents. This doesn’t mean you have to agree, but it does mean you have to look like you agree.
It’s crucial to remember that by stepping out of the way of our children’s development, we’re not abandoning them. The mom who sleep trains is not giving her child the message she no longer loves him; the dad who lets his daughter get a “C” on a test is not neglecting her education. Instead, being a supporting, encouraging presence who trusts a kid enough to make his or her own mistakes, and then learn from them, instills more confidence in the child.
There are two parts to this: one is to come up with a game plan you both can agree to and then communicate it to your kids as coming from both of you equally. Kids can sense when parents are divided, and it’s a confusing message to them: maybe I have to go along with this, but then again, Mom looks really skeptical, so maybe I don’t.
The second part is to turn to one another for help when the task is difficult. Among any two people, one will generally be more determined than the other to see a plan through. One good way to be on each other’s team is to form a plan beforehand. The night before sleep training or a new homework regime, meet with each other in private and imagine what possible setbacks will come up and how you’ll handle them. Maybe the more permissive parent has to leave the room. Maybe the more hardcore one has to agree to lower expectations at first. Together, you can address roadblocks before they become fodder for arguments.
The second example—“No one else is having this problem”—fits into the category of comparisons. We worry that others are doing a better job, or we hear our mom’s voice in our ear telling us how it used be done. Try to remind yourself that each family, each child, even each evening is unique. There isn’t one model that everyone can or should follow. Allow for flexibility and individuality, and remember that your vision of everyone else’s family is probably a fantasy—no one is problem-free. Someone else’s child might sleep through the night easily, but trust me, they’re likely either picky eaters, bed-wetters, or rebellious teens.
Finally, thoughts such as “This is impossible” are illustrations of negative cognitions. They are exaggerated, worst-case-scenario notions that keep us feeling as if failure is a foregone conclusion. Changing your thoughts is part of a larger approach called cognitive therapy, but you can practice one simple strategy by identifying the words that come to you (“I can’t bear watching my child suffer”) and replacing the thought with something more palatable (“Struggle is beneficial, and my son knows I’m here to support him”). As often as you’ve unconsciously repeated the negative thought (a hundred times? A thousand?), that’s how many times you’ll have to consciously replace it with the new, more comforting thought.
The truth is this practice is as much your learning process as it is your child’s. Whatever you’re working through today is one of hundreds of times you’ll have to take a deep breath and stand back as your child frets and worries about some new challenge. Rather than harming your daughter by letting her figure out how to deal with a difficult teacher, you’re handing her a priceless lesson about self-sufficiency. In other words, by soothing your anxiety, you’re giving your child a leg up on hers.