How not helping your child is the best help of all

I’m at an amazing place in my city that allows children to explore all kinds of things about science. We were here for a birthday party this morning and my son wanted to stay. As I write this I’m watching him build a roller coaster with some other boys. Boys he doesn’t know but just met, just walked up to them the way children do, and started playing. What they are doing isn’t working. I could be helicopter parenting, helping them…because of course I want his coaster to be awesome. I always want him to succeed.

But I don’t. I hold back, letting them sort out their disagreements, figure out physics (before they know what it means). Watching to see how he does. Knowing that he can’t learn these things from a book.

It’s these moments when you realize your job as a parent isn’t to always help them in the conventional way. Fixing their problems actually doesn’t help them.  My job is to get him out into the world; educated, well-mannered, and as a good human being. To learn from his mistakes and understand the consequences of his actions – and they have to be HIS actions for this lesson to be taught.

On the drive this morning, I told my son the story of how when I was 8 years old, I went with my Dad to a ski town – with real mountains – and he wanted me to learn to ski. I didn’t grow up with money but my Dad went to a conference in this town every year and for many years, he brought me along. At the top of the so-called “bunny hill”, I panicked. I wouldn’t go down. I was bawling and asking him to help me. What did he do? He told me that I could walk down or ski down but it was my choice…he was leaving and he’d see me at the bottom of the hill.

Twenty years ago, I used to tell that story as an example of how much of an asshole my father was. Now I tell that story as an example of how he knew that ultimately, it had to be my choice whether I skied or walked. The only way he could let me out into the world knowing he’d done his job was for me to make choices, experience the consequences of those choices, and experience the pleasure of knowing I could do anything to which I set my mind.

Of course I skied down.

This morning I had to leave my son to finish breakfast on his own. I often have to remind him to put his dishes on the counter or in the dishwasher. I didn’t yell anything down to him as a reminder. I try not to be that Mom, but it’s hard sometimes. I demand he have good table manners and expect him to help out around the house. I thought when I came down that his stuff would still be at the table. But no. He had put everything away. All on his own. No nagging, no reminders.

It it seems like a small thing, but it’s those little moments that make you realize as a parent that you are doing something right. But maybe more importantly, for me it’s a reminder that now, I need to let him show to me that he will do the right thing, all on his own.

(With thanks to Barbara Coloroso who was the only author whose books on parenting really cut through all the bullshit advice you get exposed to as a parent. If you are a parent and haven’t read her stuff – do it. It’s brilliant.)

What do you think?