Don’t Help This Child

Compassion is one of our most positive human instincts, and we parents have an abundance of it for our kids. There’s almost nothing most of us wouldn’t do to ease our children’s pain, prevent struggles, and clear away confusion. We just want to make life work for them.

So, it was a big “Ah-ha” for me when I discovered through my training with child specialist Magda Gerber that our well-meaning support can often be less helpful than we intend it to be. In fact, it might even undermine our goal of raising self-confident, resilient, motivated kids.

For example, what might have been gained or lost by helping this two year old?

If you’re like me, you wanted to help him. You really did. (And he wasn’t even remotely frustrated!) But by doing so, he would have been deprived of the invaluable gift of discovery; the opportunity to practice tenacity, focus, persistence, patience; the chance to own his accomplishment and learn “I can do it!”

Our patience and restraint are a challenge, but they allow for golden opportunities. And we can still help by using these “helpful” hints:

1. Always, always, always respond to a request for help.

2. Be mindful that the way we respond matters. Observe and think before acting.

3. The definition of “help” is not “fix it”:

  • Help is paying attention. When children ask our help, we might reply, “Sure, I’ll help! What are you doing?” More often than not, all the help children need is for us to be quietly available.
  • Help is supporting our children when they express frustration by acknowledging, “Whew, that’s a tough one. You are working hard and making progress.”
  • Help is calming ourselves rather than cluttering our child’s experience with our own worries, anxiety, and doubt.
  • Help is maintaining a positive, accepting attitude toward struggles (after all, life is chock full of them!) so that they are normalized for our child.
  • Help is losing our focus on results, which means taking our eye off the prize and remaining right where our child is in the process.
  • Help is trusting our children to leave self-chosen tasks unfinished and perhaps return to them later or not, as they wish.
  • Help is offering minimal suggestions and then, only if frustration builds, offering the slightest bit of assistance. Helping as minimally as possible allows children full ownership of their success, whether at that moment or at some later time.

Rather than give the message, “When you are in trouble, you scream and I rescue you,” we would like to convey the feeling, “I think you can handle it, but if not, I am here.” Magda Gerber, Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect

(Inspiring video and lovely photo by Karen Lewis Dalton!)

I share more about this respectful approach in

Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting



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

  1. Urvashi Ahuja says:

    Great article… I try to do the same with my 2 years and 4 months old. I ask her to try and if she does not succeed, i will help her. And most of the times, she does not need my help 🙂

    But for some reason, since a few days, she says “help me mom” when she instead expects me to do her job, I believe this is incorrect. And I need to change this expectation of her.

    1. Hmmm… I wonder what this is about? Is there a reason she might be feeling needy?

  2. Thanks for this wonderful example of how standing by provides all the help this child needs. I especially like tip #5, staying on the process, and not focusing on the result.

  3. A great reminder! That video was very helpful to me to see it in action. My 2-year old gets mad at me if I try to help, anyways, so I always back off. But he is receptive to verbal help, like if he is trying to take off his pants, I gently suggest he try it standing up. He says “mm-hmmm” and stands up. It is so stressful for me and my husband to watch our little one struggle with something! Also I have noticed if we pick something up off the ground and hand it to him, sometimes he throws it back down so he can get it himself!

    1. Thanks, Faith! I love how your boy is teaching you to allow him to challenge himself! 🙂

  4. another outstanding and critically important article (and video) (s). SO much of adult helping doesn’t help–in fact does damage. The ball to keep our eye on in maximizing internally motivated decision-making.

  5. Long before I was introduced to the concept of RIE, I was fortunate to learn this from my sister-in-law who barked at me, “Don’t help her!” when my little niece was having some frustration trying to get a doll stroller over a lip between a tile and hardwood floor. My instinct was to just lift the stroller over and “fix” the problem. I’m not cold-hearted enough to ignore a baby in distress! But I was startled by the reprimand and backed off to watch as she struggled a few times and succeeded proudly, running around the house to come back and do it again. My sister-in-law apologized later and sheepishly explained that she wanted her to know she can accomplish things by herself, but I thanked her then and brought it up again later when I had my own kids because it completely shifted the way I saw children’s struggles, and I think opened my mind to the ideas on your website once I finally found it!

  6. Michelle Robinson says:

    My daughter is approachigng 5 months of age. I’m curious about how to decide when to help when she is uncomfortable and hurting a bit. For instance, when she attempts to roll off of her floor bed (8″ high), she sometimes gets one of her arms stuck between her body and the floor. With her legs still on the bed, this puts some pressure and weight on her arm, and she cries moderately. Sometimes I wait to see if she can fix this herself, and occasionally she does, but it takes her a few minutes. Other times her crying is more desperate and I slowly approach and tell her I will help before pulling her arm out from under her. Since this has been happening for a month, I’m starting to wonder if I am interfering with her learning how to do this herself well. Any advice?

    1. Michelle – I would definitely continue to help your daughter when she cries, but rather than fixing the situation for her, I would pick her up.

  7. Cindy Loewe says:

    I have been struggling with helping my infant teachers understand this concept. The bullet points are perfect to open up dialogue on this topic and will definitely be used during my next team meeting. I wish there was a way to print these for my less tech-savvy staff members.

    1. Thank you, Cindy! I wish it could be easier for you to print them, too! I am unfortunately unable to make that addition to my site at this time.

    2. Eilen Radostits says:

      Dear Cindy,

      Just copy the bullet points from the Facebook article, and paste them onto a new Word Document that you can alter as you see fit. Then just print it out for your staff members…simple!


  8. I”m convinced that I feel most confident in areas my parents didn’t help, from early childhood on. I got help (flashcards, homework checking) in math—never felt very competent in that subject. I got help (instructions, hovering advice) when trying to learn to fix things—-never felt very competent there either. But I was free to read the books I chose, told I needed to do writing myself, and expected to cook family meals on occasion. In those pursuits and others, I know I can handle whatever challenges come my way.

  9. This is wonderful advice. I also suggest not to help a verbal child who makes a statement rather than asking for what he needs. For example, ” my shoes at untied.” Rather than ” can you help me tie my shoes?” Asking for what we need is a life long skill. Parents are much too quick to jump in- claiming it’s quicker and avoids tears… Thanks for all you do Janet.

  10. I am currently sitting for a child who is about 6 months old. My son is 5 months old. The 6 month old is with us 3 days per week 8 hours per day. How can i compassionately allow her to learn to play by herself? Right now she shows frustration after 2-3 mins of independent play. My 5 month old can go for almost an hour by himself. When the 6 month old is with us he gets upset by her insistent crying. My son isnt a big crier and calms himself easily when he gets upset. But it makes for a long day. Id like to have them in the same play area but it doesn’t seem to be working. Advice?

  11. Brenda Dixon says:

    Hi, Janet,

    Your #1 hint is to always help when the child asks for help. My struggle is with my 3-year-old son, who wants me to help him constantly. I adore him, but he seems to need me continually, whether to play games with him, walk him to our bathroom when he needs to go, participate in art projects with him, read to/with him, talk (exclusively) with him during meals, pay close attention to every crayon stroke when he is drawing, etc. He likes to help me do everything – make dinner, fold laundry, type on the computer, whatever. He is a cheerful child (by and large), but I can’t seem to get him to do things on his own, even when I am nearby, other than for a very few minutes, very occasionally. (He can’t even sleep without me – after he goes to sleep, he wakes up every few hours and calls for me.) Perhaps we overstimulated him as a baby (though we didn’t have a mobile, we didn’t get into a habit of leaving him alone)? We now have him going 5 mornings a week to a Montessori program, which he is enjoying, but we frankly did it more for me just so I could get a little time to breathe – this summer I thought I was going to go out of my mind. Do you have any suggestions on moving him towards a bit more independent play? Or do we just wait it out, knowing that it well eventually happen?

    Thanks so much – I have recently appreciated your posts about dealing with issues briefly and matter-of-factly and moving on – it has been very helpful, practical advice.

    1. This is very similar to my 3 year old son, everything but the sleep. It has become worse in the past 6 months since he turned 3.
      I am very interested to know of some strategies to help him become more confident. It makes you so sad to see their resolve and resilience disappear

  12. I absolutely believe in letting my daughter (2yrs) do as much as she can by herself. But she has started asking for my help before even attempting the task. I usually try to respond with something like, “You are capable of doing this yourself. You should try it first and then if you need my help, I am here.” What do you think? She also insists on me playing with her or doing X myself when I’m trying to set up independent playtime for her. It’s starting to frustrate me to think she won’t do anything without me. Do you have other suggestions?

  13. Hello,

    I was wondering if there’s an age where you teach the child to finish tasks?

    I find myself often not being able to deeply focus and engage into something, even if it’s something I find interesting or that matters to me. It’s like I don’t have the patience.

    Is there a way to avoid this with children?
    If your child usually doesn’t finish works, is this a reason to worry?

    1. I’d like to know about this, too.

  14. What about when they do get frustrated, but still don’t want help?

    Thank you!

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