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Learning to let them fly

August 13, 2012

Am I an overparent-er?

I kept asking myself that question as I read Madeline Levine’s opinion piece in the New York Times entitled, “Raising Successful Children.”

Ms. Levine is a psychologist and author of the book “Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success.” In her article, she explains that the “optimal parent is one who is involved and responsive, who sets high expectations but respects the child’s autonomy.”

“Yes,” I thought. “I agree.”

She continued, “The happiest, most successful children have parents who do not do for them what they are capable of doing, or almost capable of doing; and their parents do not do things for them that satisfy their own needs rather than the needs of the child.”

“Exactly. Preach it, sister,” I thought, as I replayed in my mind dozens of examples of friends or family doing precisely what she advocated against. Madeline and I were seeing eye-to-eye on this parenting thing.

And then came the crushing blow as she further clarified her point: “If you treat your walking toddler as if she can’t walk, you diminish her confidence and distort reality.”

Ouch. Busted! I do carry my toddler as if she can’t walk. My 2-year-old whines as if her legs may fall off walking from the car to our front door. And if I expected her to traverse the entire parking lot to enter the grocery store? She might just melt into a gooey pile of misery right there on the pavement like the Wicked Witch of the West. She’d scream, “I’m melting, I’m melting. I can’t walk anymore.” Actually, she’d say, “any muwah,” because she’s still working on the “r” sound, but you understand.

As much as this article resonated with me and I wanted to point the finger at everyone else, I eventually conceded that I may be guilty of a little overparenting, too.

It’s our natural tendency to want to make the world easier for our children than it was for us: give them more love, more guidance, more resources. It’s natural, too, to desire to soften the inevitable blows that come with growing up. And that often looks like good parenting. But, I agree with Ms. Levine that if we are keeping the long-term goals in mind, sometimes “more” isn’t doing them any favors.

I had a conversation with a friend recently in which she was lamenting her inability to take her toddler into a restaurant. “He’s just not ready yet,” she said. He screams and cries, doesn’t want to sit still and embarrasses her, so she stopped taking him to restaurants altogether. “We’ll try it again when he can behave,” she explained.

I’m not one of those who spews unwanted parenting advice to others, but this is a close friend, and we rely on one another to speak the hard truths when needed. So I asked her, “How is he going to develop those skills if he never gets the opportunity to try?” She looked at me dumbfounded.

Teaching your toddler to behave in public places is like teaching them to ride a bicycle. You don’t wait until they are masters at bike riding before you ever let them hop on the bicycle. They have to get on, and you have to let go. And sometimes they fall. You encourage them to get back on again, and they do it better the next time.

Whether it’s toddler behavior or teenagers preparing to go off to college, we often find it hard to let our kids try and fail. When they don’t get it right the first time, we fear that it reflects poorly on us as parents. We judge others, and we know they judge us. From an early age, we teach our children to participate in the construction and maintenance of an image of ourselves we’d like others to see. Failure doesn’t fit into the image.

Overparenting comes not only from the need to protect an image, but also when we as parents are fulfilling our own needs through the act of parenting. I’ve realized recently that there isn’t a clear boundary between myself and my daughter. I feel her pain as my own, and I really can’t distinguish in my mind between the two; we bleed into one another. I don’t want her to feel pain or disappointment (even when I know it’s necessary and good for her), because I’m also protecting myself from pain and disappointment.

This may not be so bad when she’s a toddler, but it could be detrimental when she’s a teenager. She shouldn’t be burdened with overprotection because I need to give her what I didn’t get enough of from my parents. She deserves the opportunity to learn and try and fail and find her own way.

For her first birthday, I wrote her a poem- her room is decorated with butterflies, and I loved that analogy for her. In the poem, I told her that while she was little, I’d cuddle her in a warm cocoon, keep her safe and protected. But, I promised that when it was time, when that butterfly was ready to fly out into the world, I would let her go.

Unlike butterflies, there isn’t one particular moment that we let our children fly away. It’s a journey of letting go a little more each day, letting them take hold of who they are and who they’ll be.

As much as I want to keep her snuggled tightly in my cocoon, I am determined to let her fly away. Only then will I truly see the beautiful colors of the person she’s become.