Week of April 15, 2019 / 10 Nisan 5779 Growing Our Children’s Brains
The first time I heard the term “helicopter” applied to parenting, I shuddered and vowed to myself, “I will never helicopter over my children. I will let them have freedom and free will.” A helicopter parent hovers and watches so that when their child encounters a challenge, the parent can swoop in to resolve the difficulty and “save the day.” But helicopter parenting suggests a lack of trust in the child’s ability to deal with challenges independently. All research points to the importance of granting your child agency as she explores and investigates her world and her social sphere. We need to stay out of the way and trust that our children will share their experiences verbally when they are ready. Granted, helicopter parents are only trying to protect their precious ones. They can do that by being available with parental wisdom after a challenge has occurred, not by swooping in to save the day as it happens.
Bulldozer parenting, also called snowplow parenting, adds an even more harmful dimension to protective parenting. While helicopter parents hover, wait, and intervene as soon as a problem occurs, bulldozer parents proactively clear their child’s path, so that the child will not ever encounter a difficulty. Bulldozing a smooth path for a child is detrimental to her development, because we learn from struggle, or as I like to say: when you struggle, your brain grows. We need to allow our children to face challenges, solve problems, and find their own way to solutions. This is the key to lifelong success both academically and socially.
You may be shuddering right now and vowing that you will never be a bulldozer. It is not so easy to avoid. I see bulldozer parenting every day, every time a parent does something for a child rather than having the child do it for herself, even if that would take longer. Consider this familiar scenario: You have five minutes before you need to leave the house in the morning. You put your child’s breakfast dish in the sink. Then you put on her socks, shoes, and jacket, zip the jacket, and open the front door. You pick up your child and deposit her in the stroller, hang her school bag from the stroller, grab your coffee, and close the door behind you. All in 5 minutes! A “smooth sailing” transition, and the two of you relax and enjoy the walk to school.
Counterintuitive as it may seem, I will counsel you away from the efficient and productive mode of parenting I just described. Who benefits from this efficiency and high level of productivity? YOU will deliver your child to school on time, get to work on time, and get started on the rest of your morning “to do” list. What did this efficient departure enable YOUR CHILD to do?
Consider this alternative version of the scenario. You ask your child to put her breakfast dish at the side of the sink. You have laid out her socks, and you sit next to her and talk through the steps of putting them on. (You may have laid out your own socks and put them on at the same time, pausing at each step along the way so your child can do the same thing.) If she becomes frustrated, you put your hands over hers to guide her. You wait (and breathe) while it takes your child double the time it would have taken you to put her socks on. You praise her for putting her socks on, and then you put out her shoes and guide her as to which shoe belongs on which foot. You let her put the shoes on, acknowledge her accomplishment, and then you tie them. You lay her coat on the floor and encourage her to do the “preschool flip.” If she can zip her jacket, you wait for her to do so and give her positive reinforcement once she is done. If she is not ready yet, you start the zipper, narrating how you fit one part into the other, and allow her to zip it up. Again, you praise her independent effort and support her learning. You offer her the choice to walk or to ride in the stroller. If she chooses the stroller, you ask her to get in by herself.
The second scenario took longer to describe, and it will take longer to do in real life. It is not devoid of stress and is less smooth than the first version I described. However, this scenario is developmentally appropriate and commensurate with our goal as parents: to raise confident children who ultimately become self-sufficient.
It can be hard to hold back from being a helicopter or a bulldozer. I am still working on not being a helicopter, especially as my daughter enters her teen years. None of us want our child to experience frustration or take the consequences of making a poor decision, and all of us are under pressure to be efficient and productive. But time invested in helping our children become independent now will save frustration and enable them to be more effective in the long run.
I hope this review inspires you to examine at least one of your family routines. It could be the morning one I used as an example or any other routine that is part of your day with your child. Dissect your routine action by action and ask yourself how much you are doing for your child and how much your child is doing for herself. Consider allowing more time so that your child can struggle. You will witness her brain grow right before your eyes!