Parenting Advice: Giving Kids Space

In very few modern spheres of life would you find that less is more. More is more, Katie! More toys are better! More activities are better! More spoken languages are better! More food is better! More parent-child interaction! More fun! More money! More clothes (Hoorah!)! We’re only a little bit gluttonous on the whole. So what could possibly motivate me to make the outlandish claim that less is more?

I’ll start at the relative beginning. For the past few months, I have been working on scaling back my unneeded interventions into kids’ lives. I’ve been trying to curtail worriedly checking on them a lot. I’ve been trying to delay (or even completely cut out) my involvement in sibling and friend squabbles. I’ve been trying to put the brakes on rushing to help when I’m not asked, or even the first time that I’m asked. I’ve been trying to give fewer directions when I think it’s something that the child could remember to do on their own (for example: I try not to say “Put your shoes on” anymore; instead I go with, “Everybody ready?”).

Why?

I frame this whole question in terms of responsibility. When I ask kids to put their shoes on or ask if everything’s ok, then I am assuming responsibility for whether or not their shoes are on their feet and whether or not they actually are “ok.” When I come over to check homework and start pointing out errors or over-help with problems, then I am assuming that the child cannot do it herself. I’m even assuming that she can’t make mistakes on her own or figure out a way to get around something she doesn’t understand (like writing the teacher a question about the problem or just plain trying her best). If I try to make myself responsible for the fun that kids are having or their happiness levels or whether or not they’re getting along with their friend, then I’m setting myself up to do something impossible. Has anyone ever met a grumpy kid to whom every positive alternative is met with a “Harumph!”? I can’t make you happy if you don’t want to be happy (not that happiness need be the norm).

What am I leaving room for by lessening my interventions? Plenty!

  • I trust them to keep themselves happy, relatively safe and entertained while in another part of the house or in the backyard (and not always in my sight).
  • I give them the job of working out problems with their friends or siblings…or not working them out if they’re so inclined. Those relationships belong to them after all. I think Ella is nice but she’s not my bestie.
  • I give them the opportunity to do something that they think they can’t do. I don’t jump in at the first sign of frustration. I encourage with words but without action for a little while before applauding the effort and helping- OR I get to see them do “the impossible!” and applaud them for not giving up.
  • I let them think for themselves and have primary responsibility over their bodies and belongings. “Do I have everything I need for our trip?” “Did I remember to bring my friend’s present to the party?” “Is my coat hung up where it should be?”
  • I let them make mistakes. Everyone says that we learn from our mistakes, but how often do we take this advice? We generally just try to avoid making them ourselves and them help our kids avoid making them. Plus some mistakes aren’t such a big deal- shirt on backwards, shoes on the wrong feet. Go ahead: make those mistakes, I don’t mind. Or make a mess. I’ll try not to mind. But I’ll also help you learn to clean it up (without making the job my own). Learning to make small mistakes early on might help kids avoid much bigger ones later.

Sometimes I annoy kids. (No?! An adult who annoys children?!? IMPOSSIBLE!). When they try to pass me the “responsibility ball,” I tend to pass it right back, much to their chagrin. But trust me also when I say that I have seen kids grow simply because they have been given space to do so. And that feeling of pride and worth often outshines any of the annoyance that came along with it.