A kid who solves a thousand small problems will be well prepared when a big problem comes along.
“Can you help me with my juice box?”
When I heard this question a lightbulb popped on in my head and it’s a moment I’ve never forgotten.
As a teacher, I love helping kids struggle with difficult concepts, learn new skills and wrestle with what it means to become an adult in this difficult time.
As a mom, my hands are wired — almost separately from my brain — to help kids. Without even thinking, I open snack packages, tie shoes, fix ponytails and hand out wet wipes. If you have kids, you probably do a hundred little things for them every day without even noticing it. Zipping coats, holding the door, buckling buckles and yes — pushing the straw into juice boxes.
The kid asking me to open his juice box though, wasn’t my kid. In fact, he wasn’t really a kid at all. He was one of my able-bodied high school students who had become accustomed to getting help punching his juice box straw through the little cellophane hole instead of learning to do it for himself.
In this moment, I had a parenting epiphany. I realized that by helping our kids, we aren’t helping them at all.
As humans, we’ve evolved to love and care for our babies. Unlike some species, baby humans are helpless, and rely on loads of help from caregivers — for decades — in order to become self sufficient.
But sometimes we take our desire to care too far, and the consequences are harmful and long lasting.
It doesn’t feel right to stand idly by as a hungry child is struggling to get the lid off his pretzel container.
But when we jump in and help by taking off the lid and handing over the snack, the kid doesn’t have the opportunity to figure out how to do it on his own.
The small act of figuring out how to open a container can teach a kid perseverance, ingenuity, and self-confidence. By solving his own problem, the kid is empowered to try to solve other problems.
When this happens one time, the impact is small.
But over a lifetime, the impact of these tiny moments is huge.
A four-year-old can’t drive a car, change a light bulb or hang a picture on the wall.
But a four year old can put his own jacket on, choose which books to get at the library and figure out how to get a truck out from behind the sofa.
And a four-year old who can do those things will grow into a ten year old that can help with yard work, clean his own bedroom and put his own homework in his backpack.
By the time this kid is a teenager, he will be ready to manage a busy schedule, find an after school job and figure out what to do when his car runs out of gas on the side of the road.
Not helping your kid can take some practice. Just getting out the door can take much longer. Parents are just faster at all that snapping and zipping, and we don’t get distracted by a lego piece stuck between the floorboards.
But with practice, you’ll get better at it, and so will your kid. At first, they might stand by the door all floppy armed, waiting for you to slide their jacket on. But after a few times, they’ll see how easy it is for them to put on their own coat and you’ll be cruising out the door in no time.
Some parenting strategies take a lot of work. Chore charts, behavior plans and potty training are exhausting.
But the great news is that not helping your kid is actually less work for you. And when you’re not exhausted and frustrated from waiting on your child hand and foot, you’ll have more energy for the fun stuff like playing tag and doing craft projects.
So give it a shot. Don’t help your kid. Learning to problem solve is the gift of a lifetime. They will thank you by finding success in school and in life and moving out of your house someday!
For more thoughts on kids and parenting, check out these articles: