“I can do it Mom!!!” she says confidently as she takes the knife and starts digging into the peanut butter jar. Trying to pull it out, the knife flicks up, and I duck as a chunk of peanut butter flies past me. “Oops! Sorry, Mom.” “That’s okay sweetheart,” I smile back at her.
Getting the toast buttered at 5-year-old speed moves us well past the “critical buttering period.” When she finally gets the peanut butter onto the cold toast, it takes all of her strength to spread it around. Finally, with huge blobs of peanut butter in random spots on the bread, she looks up at me, beaming with pride: “See?!”
Parents have always known that it’s important for our kids to try things and fail, and now the scientific evidence and psychological research confirms it. This is how kids build resilience, which is critical to their development and their happiness. Kids learn when they try, struggle, fail, try again, and then finally get it—not when you deliver them the already buttered toast.
We know this, and yet…how do we handle the discomfort that comes when we pull back and let our kids struggle? And I’m not just talking about the “she’s not doing it the way I would do it” unease, (unevenly buttered toast makes me cringe). When you love your children so deeply, what do we do with the pain of watching them struggle? When they have to learn the lesson about losing the game? Or about the vulnerability of making new friends? Or how to ride the bike without training wheels? How do we give our kids the space to do things by themselves, when every part of our being just wants to protect them from pain and suffering?
When to Step In
Yes, it’s important to let your child struggle and fail; yet at the same time, it’s our job to keep them safe. There will be times when it’s appropriate (and necessary) to jump in. There are no black and white rules here. Every child and situation is different, so it will be an “in the moment” judgment call.
My very general rule is if there is a possibility of serious injury, I step in. For example, last night we rode our bikes to the park, and Lily went to play on the monkey bars. Even though I suffered a mini panic attack watching her up there, the ground was soft, she wasn’t that high up, and she was still wearing her bike helmet. So I sat back quietly and let her go.
Alternatively, she’s just learning how to swim and is unreasonably confident in her abilities. She is certain she can do it by herself, even though each time she starts paddling she goes under. So I’m there at arm’s length while she’s flailing around, just in case.
Trust yourself that you know your kid, and if your intuition is telling you to get in there, do it.
Two Tips to Help You Pull Back
Create a Persona
The first step in changing any kind of behavior is to notice it. You can help yourself do this in a kind and compassionate way by creating a persona (or character) for the behavior. Start off by paying attention to how you feel and act when you want to jump in and help your kids. What sensations do you feel in your body? What emotions? How do you speak to your kids? What thoughts run through your mind? Take all of that information and turn it into a character.
Some of the best personas I’ve heard are the “Guard Dog,” “The Helicopter” and “Panicky Patty.” Ideally, find a persona that makes you laugh, so that when you notice this character show up you can view the situation with humor.
Once you have your persona, just notice when it shows up. “Oh look, the girls are setting the table with the wine glasses, and Panicky Patty wants to jump in and stop them. Hi, Panicky Patty. Thanks for keeping an eye on the girls, but it’s okay. They aren’t in any real danger, and it’s important for them to learn.”
Build the Space to be Mindful
The space between the urge to act, and when you actually do something, is where mindfulness lives. Building up this space gives you the ability to make conscious choices about what you do, rather than acting on impulse or default.
When you notice the urge to jump in and help your kids, just stop. Pause. Take a deep breath and count to 10. Notice what it feels like to wait. Notice what thoughts run through your mind about what could possibly happen. Most importantly, notice your children. Notice how they work through the challenge without your help, how their faces change while they’re figuring it out. You still have the option to jump in, but try not to. See what happens when you wait. Not just for them, but also within yourself.
There will be a point in their lives when you won’t get to watch their every move. Consider this “heart training” for what’s to come. Not only are you doing your kids an incredible service by giving them the space, you’re doing one for yourself.