A couple of months ago, in early December, I shared a post on “hovering versus helping” after reading Jessica Lahey’s book “The Gift of Failure”. Lahey’s message is basically that well-intentioned parents who believe they are helping their kids are actually doing more harm than good by hovering. I had promised to follow-up with another post providing some practical tips on how we can avoid “over parenting” and some ideas on what exactly we CAN do in an effort to foster the development of our children’s’ autonomy, so here we go!
The development of autonomy is an important part of our children’s maturation process. Ultimately, one of our goals as parents is to prepare our children to go out into the world on their own. In her book, Lahey argues that our overprotective and failure adverse parenting style has resulted in undermining our children’s competence, autonomy and their resilience. In other words, we are failing as parents as far as preparing them to go out into the world as autonomous individuals. She argues that one of the best things we can do as parents is to let go of control, and work towards helping our kids embrace opportunities for failure and help them find ways to grow and learn from their setbacks. Great, but how do we do that?!
Step 1. Back off!!
As challenging as it can be (believe me, I know this is easier said than done!) resisting the temptation to jump in to help, assist, or speed things up for our children is very important. Lahey (2015) describes autonomy supportive parenting as sticking to the sidelines; in other words, being present and available for support, but not taking over. No micromanaging! For example, encouraging your 6 year old to bring his/her plate to the kitchen after a meal is a great idea, but step back if you notice they are holding the plate with one hand and rushing, resulting in them spilling some of what’s leftover on the plate. This is an opportunity to learn how to wipe up a mess and to discover that holding the plate steady with both hands and walking slowly will prevent a spill. Another example might be, when asking a child to clean up his toys, allow him the time it will take him to do so on his own, even if you know you could get them sorted and put away much more quickly.
As a parent, it can be very challenging to stick to the sidelines, and you may struggle knowing what to do as you watch (been there!). Here are a couple of tips. Try to listen and be empathetic without diving in to solve a problem your child is struggling with. Express an interest and support them by listening and, if appropriate, help them by providing alternative solutions when they are problem solving. The idea to retain here is that we want to give our children the space to develop skills on their own and learn from their mistakes. By repeatedly stepping in, we are not providing them with room to figure things out on their own, and hence, we are fostering dependence and communicating a message to them that we don’t think they can do it, or not without our help in any case. This is not the message we want to convey to our children, is it? So back off!
Step 2. Let’s change how we perceive failure!
Lahey (2015) maintains that failure has become a bad word (the new F word?!) and that it’s important we “destigmatize it”. Obstacles, challenge, and failure (yes, even failure!) are a part of life. Let’s work on changing the way we think about failure and the way we talk about it with our kids. Failure is an important part of children’s development and allows for opportunities to solve problems and develop resilience. So, looks like there is an upside to failure after all! Let’s admit to our children that we have struggled ourselves or have had things turn out differently than we had hoped. Lahey argues that failure is one of our most valuable parenting tools. In other words, let’s give our kids permission to stumble by sharing stories of our own struggles and let’s help them by supporting them when they stumble as they get back up.
“Failure is success if we learn from it.”~ Malcolm Forbes
Step 3. Encourage your kids to take risks and to try something new by being a healthy role model
Our society has an aversion to fear which results in less risk taking and consequently less opportunity for growth. Communicate your confidence in your child’s ability to cope with challenges and setbacks. You might also consider modeling some healthy risk taking behaviour yourself. Maybe try something new and share your experience with them. Perhaps you have always wanted to try a painting class but haven’t for fear that you wouldn’t be very good. You could try out a paint night activity and share with your child by explaining that this is something you had wanted to do, but had been hesitant to do, and that it felt good to try something new! Basically, the idea is encourage your kids to try something new and model this behaviour for them.
Owning up to our own mistakes with our children and sharing our own experiences with obstacles and how we learned from a challenging situation can help them become more comfortable overcoming obstacles themselves. By modelling, we can teach our children to see mistakes as opportunities for growth and feedback as helpful to the learning process. Let your kids know that mistakes are natural and that you love them no matter what. Encourage them when they make mistakes and praise them for taking responsibility for a mistake and for working through a challenge. These actions can also help challenge unrealistic and unhealthy striving for “perfection”.
Step 4. Ditch the bribes and rewards!
Lahey (2015) explains that the less we push our children to perform academically, the better they will learn. The use of external rewards (I think most of us are guilty of this! Stickers or treats anyone?), interferes with our children’s engagement and more importantly with their love of learning. Lahey (2015) shares that in her own classroom, she has witnessed that students desire to please parents and teachers through achievement has interfered with them enjoying the process and kills their motivation over time. The research on motivation clearly indicates that when humans perceive control (which comes with rewards and bribes), their motivation is negatively affected and as a result their potential for learning is affected as well (Pink, 2009). As an alternative, Lahey (2015) suggests we encourage our children to set their own goals and praise their efforts rather than their results. When we step back, they will become more invested and take ownership of their goals and develop a sense of autonomy.
Lahey (2015) refers to Carol Dweck’s (2006) fascinating research, which showed that praising kids for their effort rather for their intelligence resulted in them being more persistent when faced with a difficult task and as a result they performed better. The research suggests that children who are praised for their intelligence were less likely to take risks for fear of making a mistake and compromising their score or status as being labelled as smart. Dweck’s research demonstrated that students who were encouraged to place importance on the learning process developed a growth mindset, which resulted in greater effort, more engagement with the learning process and better performance. Those with a fixed mindset tended to be less engaged, make less of an effort and didn’t perform as well. As parents, we want to encourage a growth mindset in our children. How? Let’s start by resisting the temptation to praise results and make judgements on their grades (ex. “Way to go, you got a B+”) opting instead, to praise their efforts and the learning process (“You really worked and improved a lot! What do you think helped you grasp the material you prepped for the test?”). Lahey (2015) also reminds us that important research by Angela Duckworth (1987) has shown that persistence and commitment to long term goals (which she labelled as “grit”) is the best predictor of success, outweighing grades, IQ, etc. Encouraging a growth mindset in our kids can help contribute to the development of “grit”, so praise your kids’ efforts and perseverance and not their results!
Step 5. Give your kids chores to do around the house
Allow your children to contribute around the house from a young age. Lahey (2015) points out that kids enjoy helping out and feeling competent. Think of a time your child did something on his/her own and that look of pride beaming from their cute little face! Lahey (2015) encourages us to allow our kids to help out by doing age appropriate tasks. For example, toddlers can put their dirty clothes in a laundry hamper; between 3-5 years of age, kids can help clear the table after a meal; and older kids (6-11) can do more complex tasks like helping to cut fruits or vegetables or helping to prepare grocery lists (I tried this one out with my 6 year old and she beamed with pride as she practiced her writing skills and sneakily added a couple of silly items onto the list to make me giggle!). Children over the age of 12 can do most other household chores (ex. replacing batteries in a smoke detector, laundry, etc.). Remember, what’s most important here is for the child to have a sense of pride from having participated and contributed and not from a job perfectly done. Laundry folded by a child might not look as polished as when you do it yourself, but that’s not the point here! Give your child the space and time to do things him or herself and allow them to develop valuable skills as well as a sense of competence and pride. Don’t praise the completed task, praise their dedication and persistence. Remember, these are excellent opportunities to help our children develop important life skills they will use throughout their lives as well as develop a sense of competence and confidence (and hey, it might reduce your list of chores, so I say go for it!).
Andrea Martin is a clinical psychologist in Westmount, Montreal, Quebec, at Connecte Montreal Psychology Group. The team at Connecte loves writing about ways to boost our mental health and bring psychology into our everyday lives. For more helpful tips, check out Connecte’s blogs, podcast, follow @connectepsychology on Instagram or @ConnecteMTL on Twitter, or like us on Facebook.
Duckworth, E. R. (1987). “The Having of Wonderful Ideas” and other essays on Teaching & Learning. New York: Teachers College Press.
Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of Success. New York: Random House Publishers.
Lahey, J. (2015). The Gift of Failure. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.
Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive: The Surprising Truth about what Motivates Us. New York: Riverhead Books.