The Difference Between Helping and Hovering

“I have found it immensely difficult to let go of control of my daughter. She is now 25 months old and most definitely relies on me quite a lot of the time, even in play. I desperately need some help. For example, she should at least be able to take her socks off but waits for me to do it. I have tried to acknowledge and say that I can see it’s frustrating for her, but she insists I take them off. This is one example among many! I am going to try very hard to bite my lip and not control but would love some practical tips on how I can re-educate her to realize she can do things herself. Please advise. Many thanks in advance.” – Concerned Parent

Concerned Parent’s question reflects one of the more confusing elements of respectful parenting: recognizing the difference between being helpful and nurturing to our children versus being too controlling and cramping their style.

Here are some of the distinguishing factors I’ve gathered in my work with parents and children over the years that have helped me to navigate the often fuzzy line between helping and hovering:

Hovering

Stems from our own impatience, discomfort, or concerns that our children will become frustrated or discouraged (or otherwise upset) and might not feel loved or supported by us unless we relieve these feelings by making the situation better.

Perceives children as not very capable, particularly when it comes to handling frustration and other uncomfortable feelings.

Projects tension and sometimes panic or a sense of danger into the situation (when we come to the rescue), which unsettles our children, stifling the time and space they need to be able to persevere with challenges and solve problems.

Can create dependencies, neediness, whining, anxiety, emotional fragility, a sense of helplessness.

Isn’t helpful to parents either. We’re more likely to become discouraged, frustrated, worn out, and resentful by trying to prevent or extinguish every fire and, therefore, we’ll be more reactive and short tempered. It can get to the point where we feel vaguely captive to our child’s demands and emotions, because we’ve neglected the vital task of carving out our own space in our parent-child relationship.

Is less about helping our children because we genuinely want to and more about assisting them because we feel we should or must.

Helping

Comes from a place of basic trust in our children as capable beings. We perceive ourselves as facilitators of their development rather than engineers, directors, or managers.

Requires us to be observers: patient, attuned, and open minded. We value our child’s process rather than focusing on whether or not she achieves results. We comfortably remain one step behind our children and take care not to project our own agenda or worry about theirs. And they generally don’t have one, unless we’ve taught them they should. Unlike us, they tend to fully inhabit the now.

Is wholehearted, never begrudging.  It’s more about being an supportive presence than actually doing anything.

Means intervening only when children are truly stuck, and then in the most minor way possible. For example, rather than taking a struggling child down from a climbing structure she’s ascended, we provide emotional support by spotting and acknowledging, “I see you’re uncertain about getting down from there. I’ll keep you safe while you try.” If she continues to struggle, we might offer, “Here, maybe try placing your foot on this next bar below.” Doing less as adults allows our children to do and learn more.

Nurtures self-confidence, resilience and our parent-child bond, while encouraging specific traits like tenacity, persistence, autonomy, problem solving, creativity, ingenuity, flexibility, resourcefulness, focus and a long attention span.

For specific examples of the difference between helping and hovering and how they look in practice, here’s my stab at a brief(ish) response to Concerned Parent’s request for advice.

Dear CP:

We hover when we assist too much with play… Children are born capable of inventing their own play, and it’s extremely healthy for them to do so. We can avoid creating dependencies by taking a more passive, supportive, responsive role in our child’s activities. Children don’t tend to ask for help with their play projects unless we’ve given it to them in the past.

When your child tries to draw you into being more active and entertaining, say no very confidently and comfortably. Then stay just as present and engaged with her while in observational mode, so she doesn’t get the message that she loses your attention when you aren’t playing with her. Then, whenever you can’t play with her, separate and take your space with confidence, while comfortably acknowledging her feelings.

Maybe consider what it is that you are trying to control. Your daughter’s emotions? If so, I would work at perceiving all her feelings positively, letting go of and accepting them. Children need to be able to express them fully. In my experience, this is the greatest challenge of all for us as parents, and it is a lifelong struggle.

We nurture when we assist with caregiving…  Dressing is what child specialist Magda Gerber referred to as a “caregiving” activity. Caregiving activities like dressing, diapering, bathing, mealtimes and bedtime, combing your child’s hair and making pony tails (as my husband was fond of doing for our girls) are opportunities to nurture children with our undivided attention. We invite our children to participate in these tasks to the extent of their abilities and interests, allowing them the space and time to do it themselves if they wish to, but we never force this.

Caregiving activities deepen our parent-child connection, and this is true whether children are capable of doing these tasks independently or not. As our children mature, they obviously request our help with caregiving tasks less and less, but whenever there’s an opening, I’d perceive it as a precious opportunity and seize it. If I wasn’t available, I’d still be perfectly fine with my child requesting this type of nurturing. So, I’d either reply with a confident, “I’m sorry, I can’t. I have to get myself ready right now. I’ll check in with you as soon as I’m done,” or a resounding, “Yes, I’d love to help you put that sock on. Here, I’ll place it over your toes. Would you like to be the one to pull it up the rest of the way? No? Okay, I’ll be happy to… here it goes over that heel!”

The key to all of this is getting comfortable with establishing personal boundaries so that we don’t use up precious caregiving energy constantly assisting our child when our help isn’t actually helpful, critical or productive.

Then, if you’re like me, you’ll continue to follow Magda Gerber’s brilliant advice by seizing opportunities to connect with your children with caregiving, even when they are 23, 19, and 14. You’ll jump to make them that cup of coffee whenever they’re home, offer them your undivided attention at meals whenever possible, and make it a point to steal goodnight kisses. One morning, you might even make a bold offer. After trying several times to rouse your sleepy 14-year-old son for school, you ask if he’d like you to dress him. Fully expecting your offer to be rejected, you may be stunned when, after a very long pause, he surprises you by weakly uttering, “Yeah.” You take your moment, and it completely makes your day.

For more on this topic, please check out these posts:

When Children “Can’t Do It” 

Don’t Waste an Opportunity to Connect With Your Kids

Growing, Changing, and Loss

5 Best Ways to Raise Problem Solvers

The Powerful Gift of “I Did It!”

Surprising Things Babies Might Do (If Given the Chance)

And these books:

Your Self–Confident Baby by Magda Gerber and Allison Johnson

Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect by Magda Gerber

Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting and No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline Without Shame 

1, 2, 3… The Toddler Years: A Practical Guide for Parents and Caregivers

7 Comments

Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. Janet, thank you for this helpful advice and insight. My son has a low threshold for frustration and is relatively dependent for things like get dressed/undressed (likely because I didn’t discover RIE until he became a toddler and lost the opportunity to foster resiliency and self-confidence when he was busy… I sat him up, “walked” him around, fixed problems for him. Sigh.) so this was a timely article for me. I need to continue to work on trusting and helping rather than hovering. Thank you again for your support and sharing your wisdom with us who need it so much. 🙂

    Question: My son will often say “I can’t hear you” (his hearing is fine) or “I don’t speak [the language of the foreign country we are currently living in]” (he’s heard me say this) when asked to do something he doesn’t want to do or when told no. He’s a sensitive guy (much like the child in your podcast “sensitive boy doesn’t like being told no”. How to respond to this? In the past when he says “I can’t hear you” I’ve ended up repeating myself (even though I know he can hear me) which leads to annoyance on my part. When he says “I don’t speak xyz” I say “I don’t either, which is why I’m speaking English” which makes me smile to myself but I’m not sure if it’s the best response. 🙂 Thoughts?

  2. Dear CP, Janet, and all,

    I myself seem to have a tendency to be a hovering parent of my three-year-old but I have an impression that my son just sometimes likes me to dress/undress him not because I insist on it or he can’t do it himself but rather he wants me to do it as an act of care. He prefers doing things himself or with my help depending on the situation/mood. He does look less independent in practical issues than some of his daycare mates though but we all end up doing it all sooner or later, don’t we… It’s usually quite a fuss in the morning to get him dressed but this morning he stood in front of me wholly dressed with his rucksack on his back proud of himself and ready to leave. For the first time. I was really impressed and proud of him, too. Tomorrow may be different but today it just happened. So relieved to be reading there’s nothing wrong with my kid asking for my help so often. Thank you!

  3. Thank you for this post. Caregiving has been a real point of contention recently, not between me and my son but between me and both his grandmothers. My stance is he has said when he will be ready to do these things himself at home and I intend to respect his decision. He can do them already but he wants me to do them for him when I’m around. I know he will honour his commitment, as he has done so before in relation to giving up his comfort object. However, this does not accord with both his grandmothers’ timetable of when he “should” be doing things. It’s frustrating, and creates tension when my son sees me in conflict with them.

    1. Dear Ranee, this sounds very similar to my situation. My mom sometimes claims things like “he should be doing this and this by now”. Which creates tension, yes…

  4. Thank you for answering my question this will be so helpful for me to refer to on an ongoing basis. I have another question which is a tricky one. For some time now I’ve been using RIE principles when I’m out on play dates but with little success. This is because I often find other parents pushing in their way of playing on my daughter so for instance if they see her just slightly pausing then they’ll be quick to tell her how to draw and why doesn’t she draw a ?? Whilst I often try to demonstrate that they should leave her alone it’s done far too late as by then my daughters train of thought has been completely influenced by them. It’s very challenging! Do you have any further advice about how I might tackle this? Thank you!!

  5. avatar Jazzi Kelley says:

    I’m learning so much from my nephew, and this is something he’s taught me particularly well.

    He is an independent, caring, and incredibly patient little boy. One morning he woke me up (his mom, my best friend, goes to work very early, so he and I go back to bed after she drops him off with me) and proudly announced, “I go potty all my myself so Mommy can sleep.”

    Then he proceeded to go potty all by himself “so you can sleep, Aunt Jazzi,” which was so sweet that I didn’t point out I was already awake.

    Still, I didn’t understood just how much he was capable of on his own until we went to a play place that afternoon. A bigger boy stopped him and asked (in what I took to be a very aggressive tone), “Why do you have nail polish on?”

    I was ready to step in to prevent my sweet nephew from getting his feelings hurt, but before I could get there, he patiently explained, “Because it’s okay for boys to wear nail polish. Mine is blue, but look! It’s chipping.”

    I think the other boy was a little puzzled, but he let it go, and my nephew wasn’t troubled by the interaction at all.

    I know for certain it wouldn’t have gone that well if I had stepped in. I have too many adult anxieties to have been as patient and un-reactive as my nephew was in that situation, but I’m working on it!

  6. Actually, we must encourage our kids to be independent, after a certain age. We are stopping their growth by supporting too much.

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