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:
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.
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.
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:
And these books:
Your Self–Confident Baby by Magda Gerber and Allison Johnson
Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect by Magda Gerber
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