There’s a difference between taking care of your kids and doing everything for them…
“Never do for a child what he is capable of doing alone,” wrote Maria Montessori in her book The Secret of Childhood, published in 1936, because “any unnecessary help is an obstacle to the child’s development.” A piece of advice from the famous Italian pedagogue that applies both to very young children who know how to put on their shoes and to teenagers who are able to write their science report. And yet, Nathalie de Boisgrollier, a parenting coach for more than 20 years, notes that many parents stay up late at night to do their children’s homework, replace lost bus tickets for the umpteenth time, or write their teen’s letter of application in search of a summer job. It’s an “overflow of help” which, in reality, doesn’t work in their favor.
Growth in autonomy
Raising and educating children means helping them grow up so that one day they can fly on their own. This independence is achieved gradually and according to the children’s age and abilities. “There’s a difference between taking care of them and doing everything for them,” says de Boisgrollier. By doing things in the place of their children, by trying to control everything, parents prevent them from acquiring autonomy and independence. “Through these behaviors, you are hindering the happiness of your children and their chances of succeeding in their lives,” she warns. Let’s take the example of the résumé and the cover letter for a 16-year-old’s first job. Is the real goal for our children to get a great job to impress friends and neighbors, or for them to learn something useful for the future?
One risk of doing such things for our children is that we’ll just keep doing them! “I met parents who were still writing applications for their 23-year-old children after they had left business school. Would you still like to be carrying this responsibility when they reach that age and, above all, would you like to keep that kind of control over your children?” asks de Boisgrollier.
Learning by making mistakes
Yes, your teenage children will do things less well and more slowly than you, and will make mistakes that you could have avoided! But mistakes actively contribute to learning and education. That’s why Nathalie de Boisgrollier invites parents to let their teenagers make mistakes: “The parents’ job is not to protect children from the mistakes they may make, nor to avoid any difficulties or inconvenience for them. Parenting is also not about anticipating all their desires and needs. This is even more true in adolescence! Rather, our role is to teach them that mistakes are part of any learning process.”
Being present and offering guidance
Letting children make mistakes is one thing; being there for them to help them deal with their disappointments is another. That’s when parents come in! “Let your teens take action even if you know they won’t succeed or it’s not going well. The only important thing is to be present when they ask you to be,” says de Boisgrollier. You can then help them to find solutions on their own, by asking them: “What would be the ideal solution? If you didn’t change anything, what would happen? Tell me three courses of action, even if they seem crazy to you. Which one do you think is the best?” An active and caring parental presence allows teenagers to bounce back and reap the benefits of their mistakes.
That isn’t to say parents shouldn’t ever do anything for their teens either; a logical way to help them grow in autonomy is to do things for them the first time around, so they can see and learn, and then let them try the next time on their own.
Raising children and sending them off into the world is a beautiful, difficult, and sometimes complicated process of transitioning from the complete dependence of an infant to the complete independence of adulthood. Along the way, parents have to let go bit by bit, challenging their children to do more and more on their own, without abandoning them completely to their own devices on one hand or overprotecting them on the other. There will probably be mistakes on all sides, and moments of progress and regress. All we can do is make our best effort so that the children God has entrusted to our care may become responsible adults.