By Robert Brooks, Ph.D. and Sam Goldstein, Ph.D.
From a distance, the lake and surrounding forests were an idyllic setting. Along the shore a father was teaching his young son to fish. This appeared to be a wonderful teaching moment. Yet as we approached it became clear that the father was frustrated and the child was unhappy.
“You’ve got to hold the rod straight and cast straight ahead.”
“How many times do I have to show you?”
“I want to do it my way!”
“You’re going to break it!”
“I don’t care!”
What had begun as a father’s well-intentioned effort to teach his child to fish, digressed into an angry, unfulfilling experience for both father and child. This pattern begins innocently enough when our children are two or three years old. It starts with just a few words uttered by every well-meaning parent.
“Let daddy show you how to do it.”
“Let mommy fix it for you.”
Unknowingly these words of assistance, guidance or education mark the entry into the parenting paradox. A paradox is a contradictory idea often at odds with common sense yet possibly true. The parenting paradox affects most families. We correct our children under the mistaken belief that if we tell, show or direct them they will listen, observe and improve. How else will they learn, we wonder, if not shown the errors of their ways – whether in school work, sports or table manners?
We would like our children to learn life’s lessons without mistake or blunder. These errors of youth we worry will hurt our children psychologically or physically. Listen to me we say. We’re the parent, we’ve been there, done that, made mistakes. We can help you. Our motives are noble. They reflect the very reason we became parents, to guide a youngster into a happy, healthy life’s journey. Young children’s responses to our offers of guidance and assistance are as varied as their personalities. At one extreme some children watch and listen but then don’t do, beginning a pattern of helplessness, passivity and low initiative. At the other extreme some young children respond with resistance, exhibiting a pattern of behavior that we quickly label stubborn or strong willed. This sets the stage for families destined for angry conflicts. Although the majority of young children tolerate our “helping behavior,” our actions accomplish little towards our ultimate goal of developing resilient and healthy children.
But somewhere along this path we became stuck in the paradox – if I don’t help you how will you ever learn? But on so many occasions when I correct, show or even offer to help – things get worse not better. Our noble message – I’m your parent let me help – over many years either becomes deluged in conflict or complacency on our children’s parts. Seemingly beyond our control, helping from our perspective becomes synonymous with fixing while through the eyes of our it is too frequently experienced as a lack of acceptance of their abilities.
Helping is Not Fixing
If we examine our parental goals, we discover that many center around assisting our children to feel competent, secure, happy, caring, and self-reliant. It is not an oversimplification to conclude that to realize these goals requires our children to develop the inner strength to deal competently and successfully, day-after-day with the challenges and demands they encounter. We are aware that our children will feel more competent and self-assured and more capable of solving problems that confront them if helped to deal effectively with challenging situations. Why is it then that what begins as our effort to help often results in the parenting paradox and our children’s “resistance to being fixed.” For some parents it is the words they choose and their tone of voice and body language, suggesting criticism rather than encouragement. For others it is the rush to tell the child what to do rather than engaging the child in the exciting process of discovering a solution. As parents we must not allow our efforts to help our children be transformed into exercises in fixing them. We must interact with them in ways that allow them to view our input not only as desirous but as helpful. Learning to support our children in ways that are truly helpful is part of the process of raising resilient youngsters. Resilience embraces the ability of a child to deal more effectively with stress and pressure, to cope with everyday challenges, to bounce back from disappointments, adversity and trauma, to develop clear and realistic goals, to solve problems, to relate comfortably with others and to treat one’s self and others with respect.
Solving the Parenting Paradox
We offer four guidelines to solving the parenting paradox. These guidelines, begun when our children are young, will help us avoid falling into this paradox. We are not suggesting if these guidelines are first applied at a later age that they cannot be effective. However, if we begin to refine effective patterns of helping our children when they are young, they are more likely to be responsive and listen to us as they grow.
Guideline One: Let Empathy Be Your Guide. Empathy is the ability to identify with feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of others. Taking the time not just to understand but to make an effort to experience our children’s perspective is a key ingredient to being helpful. Empathy has been popularized as an important component of emotional intelligence. Being empathic facilitates communication and assists us to avoid the parenting paradox. An empathic parent asks, “Am I saying or doing things in a way in which my child will be most responsive to listening to and learning from me?” and “Would I want someone to talk with me the way I am speaking with my child?”
When parents consider these questions, they are more likely to assume a helping rather than a fixing posture, more likely to teach than to lecture. For example, if a child is struggling in school, many parents will exhort the child to “try harder” or “put in more of an effort.” Yet, most children experience being told to “try harder” as accusatory and judgmental. When parents who are having difficulty with a task are asked, “Would you want someone to tell you to just try harder?” most say they would not. If we would not want something said to us, then we must avoid saying it to our children. A more empathic comment would be, “I can see that you are having trouble with your schoolwork. Maybe we can figure out what would help to make it easier.” When a comment such as this is offered, the child is much more likely to listen and to be cooperative.
Thus, empathy is a starting point to help children locate areas of competence and success in their lives, to develop problem-solving skills, responsibility, compassion, and a social conscience. Empathy permits us to communicate the message to our children that we hear, feel, and understand their opinions; it helps us to find ways to validate what our children are saying and attempting to accomplish. This does not imply that we agree with everything our children think, believe or do but rather that we acknowledge what they are saying.
Guideline Two: Bite Your Tongue, Watch and Listen. Too often when we help our children we quickly express ourselves and tell them what to do. However, we must first learn to watch and listen. This guideline is rooted in empathy since to truly watch and listen implies that we are attempting to appreciate the world through the eyes of our children. Just as we observed our children take their first steps without offering advice or criticism, we must sit back and watch them experiment safely, make mistakes, learn from their experiences, and ultimately succeed. In many situations simply being present and supportive is the most helpful thing we can do. Too much advice, even if well-meaning, may easily be interpreted as criticism or may rob our children of developing self-reliance and resilience.
For instance, if a five-year-old is creating a building with blocks and the blocks keep falling over, rather than rushing in and building the structure for the child or criticizing the child by saying, “You’re just not being careful. You always rush through things, it is more advisable to comment, “It’s not easy getting the blocks to stay up. Can you think of a way that you can put them so they stay up?” By saying this, we communicate that we appreciate that a task may be difficult, but that there are other possible solutions for our child to consider.
Guideline Three: Understand Before You Respond. Closely tied to the first two guidelines is the third, namely, respecting what our children desire in a certain situation. Sometimes our children don’t want our help, perceiving it as an intrusion into their lives or an indication that we don’t trust in their abilities. Other times the help we offer is not consistent with the problem they perceive. When our attempts to assist our met with anger or rejection, we often become annoyed, either withdrawing from our children or more forcefully telling them what to do. Instead, if we understand what they are experiencing such as the child who is struggling to create a building with blocks or a child who is having difficulty with a school assignment, we can offer such comments as, “Is there anyway I can be of help?” or “If you need me, I am here” or “If I’m misunderstanding what you said, please let me know.” Our children are more likely to approach us for guidance and support when we create an atmosphere in which they feel we are genuinely interested in understanding their point of view and do not come across as telling them what to do. If we are to create this atmosphere, we must think before we act, we must understand before we respond.
Guideline Four: Compliment and Be Patient. Opportunities Will Present Themselves. An adult we know once observed that he felt he grew up in a home where his parents seemed like his prosecuting attorneys rather than his defense attorneys. He said, “They always seemed to focus on what I did wrong and almost never mentioned what I did right.” Parents who help rather than fix are more likely to focus on offering realistic positive feedback and encouragement when compared with parents who are prone to fix things. When the emphasis is on fixing, even well-intentioned parents can easily fall into a pattern of communicating what has been done incorrectly rather than on emphasizing their children’s accomplishments. For example, when children learn to put their toys away, it is not unusual for one or two toys to remain on the floor. As obvious as it may seem, it is better for the parent to compliment and reinforce children for all the toys they put away before mentioning that there are still two toys remaining. A positive approach would be for the parent to say, “You did such a great job putting away so many toys, that if it’s okay I’d like to put these last two toys away.” Similarly, if a child who has been having problems with spelling, improves from 50% to 70% on a test, the parent should immediately comment on the improvement rather than wondering about the three words that were incorrectly spelled.
As parents we must recognize that learning is a process that takes time and practice. It can be difficult to be patient given the level of emotional energy and investment we have in our children. However, if we are patient, encouraging, and empathic we will be presented with numerous opportunities to teach our children in ways that will promote their confidence and problem-solving skills. We believe that if these four interrelated guidelines are followed, the parent paradox can be significantly minimized. We will use more effective skills to teach our children and they will be more responsive to learn from us. A teachable moment will generalize and result in lifelong lessons that our children will bring with them into any new and challenging situation. To replace fixing with helping and teaching is a basic aspect of raising resilient children.
Reprinted with permission of the authors.
Drs. Brooks and Goldstein are authors of Raising Resilient Children.