Friday, May 30, 2008

How Not to Raise Wimps

You may not know it, but according to Hara Marano, we’re raising a nation of wimps. She’s the author of A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting. The product review of her book at says:

“Parents are going to ludicrous lengths to take the lumps and bumps out of life for their children, but the net effect of parental hyperconcern and scrutiny is to make kids more fragile. When the real world isn’t the discomfort-free zone kids are accustomed to, they break down in myriad ways. Why is it that those who want only the best for their kids wind up bringing out the worst in them?”

Although I haven’t read this book, it has me thinking about my own parenting practices and philosophies.

I’d like to think that I’m not raising wimps. Why just yesterday when my youngest wondered what she could have for lunch, I went down the list: a corndog, ramen, a PB&J sandwich, leftovers – all things unappetizing to her. “Well then,” I told her, “you decide what sounds good and make it yourself.”

She didn’t like that response. She sighed. She moped. I finally told her that she could either make lunch and get on with life or go mope in her room. She chose to make a box of macaroni and cheese.

Believe it or not, macaroni and cheese has had a huge influence on my parenting philosophy. It all started when we had just two kids. They were probably four and two. Hubby and I were headed out to eat and had hired a babysitter, a fourteen-year-old whose mother was our ward’s Relief Society President. I was running through the babysitting basics (this is where the diapers are, here are the first aid supplies, we can be reached at…) and had just explained what she could make for dinner – macaroni and cheese. She had no clue how to make macaroni and cheese. Or even how to boil water.

That’s when I decided that my main goal as an at-home mom was to teach my children how to live without me. I’ve used the making of macaroni and cheese to remind myself not to do for my kids what they can and should be doing for themselves.

Fortunately, I had a great example, my own mother. One of her favorite phrases was, “My mother didn’t do that for me. I’m not going to do it for you.” She used this when I wanted her to, oh … say, do a bit of my homework for me. When I was in elementary school she used the phrase to convince me that it was time to be styling my own hair. In fact, she had a whole little story to tell about a girl she’d gone to school with whose mother was doing her daughter’s hair clear into high school. The moral in all situations was, you don’t want to be needy and dependent on your mother forever do you?

Lately I’ve slipped a bit. I’ve been doing things for my kids (mostly my youngest) that they could be doing for themselves. It’s hard to hold the line and not pamper and spoil. My two oldest kids have very independent natures, but my youngest is a mild, kind, comfort-seeking soul. She doesn’t get mouthy when I refuse to do something for her. She pouts. Acts sad. Puts on her soulful puppy dog eyes and lingers in my general vicinity. As her mother, I want her to be happy. Giving in has been my solution lately. But no more.

I’m going to start labeling her behavior. Possibly saying something like, “You’re pouting because I wouldn’t do your hair this morning. But that’s not going to change my mind. My mother didn’t do my hair when I was nine, and I’m not going to do yours. On very special occasions I’d love to help you, but today’s just a regular old day.”

Hey, that felt good. I can see that my mother’s phrase is going to come in very handy.

Kids are experts at getting what they want from their parents, and because we love them and want them to be happy, we give, give, give. I’m not saying that all giving is bad, but when we start doing things for our kids that they can do for themselves – give them things that they can obtain/earn for themselves, we’re actually enabling. Yuck. Not only is our behavior unhelpful, but it is also damaging to kids’ psychological development.

Kids get much of their self-esteem from doing things, from being and feeling capable and in control. When I constantly do my daughter’s hair, I’m actually sending the message . . . You’re right, you can’t do your hair well.

Just how confident can doing her own hair make a girl feel? Let me illustrate with an unflattering moment from my childhood. I was in a tiff with another girl in my second grade class. We were engaging in the usual playground banter. She might have said, “Oh yeah, well your pants are too short.” I countered with, “Well at least I can part my own hair straight. Yours looks like a lightning bolt down the back.” (I’ve always had a big mouth.)

The truth is, we don’t magically cut the apron strings when our kids go to college or go on missions. It’s a gradual process that starts the day they learn to crawl. We don’t need to me cavalier with our children’s safety – they are precious and priceless – but we also don’t want to create fearful, fragile kids. Encourage your children to do things on their own, try their own wings. Let them fail now so they can learn how to pick themselves up. Most children don’t need you there while they do their homework past first grade. Let them do it themselves. If they don’t do it, give them consequences that don’t involve you holding their hand.

I’ve been obliquely encouraging passive, helpless behavior in my youngest child, but I’m going to stop. I can ask myself, “What hidden message will my action send? Am I doing something for Beans that she can do herself?” And I’m going to stop feeling 100% responsible for her happiness. I can’t make my children happy any more than I can make them behave. In the end, it’s all up to them.


Flashlight Girl said...

I agree in so many ways, BUT (yup, my justification is coming) what do you do if your daughter really and truly struggles to do her hair and is entering Jr. High? She refuses to cut it short (basically my solution for all of life's ills) or try and figure out a simpler "style". The long, bedraggled look isn't working. Also, boy #2 refuses to comb his hair and has some major cowlick(sp?) issues. I always cut his hair super short (every few weeks). Should I be teaching him or his brother how to do this? I was really hoping to wait until high school for that bit of teaching. One sure way for me to stop doing more than I should for my kids is underway--SUMMER BREAK. I get sick of being blamed for the general chaos of children's choices and usually end up doing the "get it yourself" routine. The book sounds intriguing. I hope you'll read it soon and let me know if it's worth my time.:)

Christie said...

My oldest daughter has hair issues as well. If she doesn't wash her hair daily it looks skanky. She doesn't seem to mind. When I took a peek at her yearbook today, I noticed that many girls seemed to have greasy, stringy hair. Yet they all had smiles on their faces. She's picking up hair styling tips from friends and even Young Women's. It's getting better slowly and without much influence from me. When I really ask myself why I'm uncomfortable when my daughters' hair looks messy, it all comes back to how I perceive others are thinking of me. I imagine they're saying, "Doesn't their mother do their hair? How can she let them leave the house looking like that?" Should I pull my daughters aside before church or school and say, "Did you comb your hair? You did?! Here, let me fix it." Actually, I've done that a time or two and they hate it. I don't blame them. If they're satisfied with how they look, why shouldn't I be? What matters more... what others will think of my mothering or what my children think about themselves?

Note: Were you asking if you should teach your boys to cut their own hair? Don't do it! Most grown men don't cut their own hair unless their balding and just buzz it. I try cutting my own and regret it almost every time. Sigh.