Disclosure: Up until about two weeks ago, I washed my 9-year-olds hair on a weekly basis. And made sure he fully bathed himself, soaping up his washcloth for him. Is that a bit over the top?
I didn't bring my laptop on our recent roadtrip. No to-dos, no email, no phone, really, except to take pictures. But I did give myself a fairly big assignment: figure out how to parent better. I brought along a newish book called How to Raise An Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success by Julie Lynthcott-Haims, which has received some solid Internet buzz.
I don't consider myself a helicopter parent—which, quite likely, is what every helicopter parent says—but I do realize that I assist my kids with tasks that, at their age, I did for myself. Nothing major (again, probably a chopper-parent claim): just things like said washing of hair, cleaning the bathroom, making school lunches, hanging up wet swimsuits.
Why do I hang up Amelia's towels instead of asking her to do it herself? A few reasons. Mostly because it's much easier for me to do it in 3 seconds than turn it into a 13+ minute task that could possibly involve me asking multiple times and her yelling and stomping. It's the same can-do attitude I bring to my miles. Just get 'er done.
And I hang them a little because I want to show her unconditional love and support. I know that can't really be conveyed with wet-towel hanging (especially when she doesn't even realize I do it). But the love-through-presence-and-labor can be communicated through helping her pick up her room or stepping in when one of her friendships goes awry.
Through her excellent book that uses jaw-dropping examples of how overprotective many parents have come, Lynthcott-Hains proves myriad times that I'm doing all of us a disservice when I confuse love and responsibility, support and accountability. (One of my favorite chapters was Overparenting Stresses Us [the parents] Out Too.)
Unfortunately, chores are the easy part; she illustrates how the wrong perspective can spill over into everything from college admissions to job interviews. (Seriously, parents calling bosses of their 20-something-year-olds to complain about how they are treated at work. So hard to fathom.)
As I devoured the book, there was one section of guidelines that stood out to me.
One part that is easy to remember for all skills, all ages, all situations.
And yes, I'm going to share it. Here she is:
Based on the work of psychologist and author Dr. Madeline Levine, Lynthcott-Haims lays out three guidelines ways we might be, "overparenting...."
1. when we do for our kids what they can already do for themselves;
2. when we do for our kids what they can almost do for themselves;
3. when our parenting behavior is motivated by our own ego.
They're easy to remember with a little vowel recall (already, almost, ego), right?
I decided, as I was sharing a bed with Ben who hadn't bathed in 10 days, that things were going to change. I read them this life skill list which Lynthcott-Haims uses as we drove home across the endless state of Wyoming. Some tasks made Ben groan and neither of them happily said they'd comply.
But maybe they saw how gung-ho I was about the whole thing, and they decided not to protest. (Mostly, I"m guessing, because they knew it would just result in more diatribes from me.)
When it comes to already do for themselves, I totally plead guilty. Mostly around food preparation. I prepared two or usually three of their meals daily. Post-Raise-Adult-Read, they are now making their own breakfasts and packing their own lunches for school.
Daily chores: same thing. They pick up their shoes, make their beds, put their dirty clothes down the chute. (But I have to remind them it's just dirty clothes...the whole "I picked up my room and now every item needs to be washed" game drives me bonkers.) Yes, I remind them to do all their chores, but no, I won't do it for them anymore. I will nag at regular intervals until it's done.
When it comes to almost do for themselves, I'm better. I was even pretty good before reading the book because almosts, with kids ages 9 and 12, are usually emotional or relationship-oriented. Skills in these categories are too important to hover. You can learn to use a washing machine at any age, but speaking up when you're having trouble—and other important life lessons—need to be learned when you're young and the stakes are relatively low. When a math class was causing daily tears or a coach's words rubbed the wrong way, I delivered the child to the situation, and then waited and waited until they finally mumbled something. (Mostly. I do my best to stay out, but have prompted with questions or lead-ins if the silence is becoming excruciating. Or my patience is fizzing away.)
I am hand's off with homework unless I am called for assistance. And usually, when I'm asked for help, it's with my more sensitive kid that dissolves into tears at seemingly minor things like a science project theme. She isn't wired to already—or almost—cope, and that's going to be a fragile issue to us both dance around as life gets more intense.
Saving the best for last: the ego. Nothing motivated my own ego. Ugh. That ego is such a bitch. I don't know about you, but my neighborhood is filled with kids "playing up" in sports and book clubs the elementary school set. (Really? I thought book clubs were for gossiping and drinking wine.) It's so easy to get caught up in the atmosphere of crazy expectations and constant motion and feeling like what your kids do is a direct reflection on both you as a person and a parent. (And yes, I fully admit I contribute; a day without an after-school activity feels empty to me.)
When I start to get all fired up about Ben on the basketball court or dreamy about Amelia's backstroke, I remind myself that they're the ones playing. And living in their bodies. They're the ones deciding what they get to do with their lives. Same with academics. I can't find the page, but Lynthcott-Haims recalls a conversation between guidance counselors where one said something like, "You know that kid would be much happier and better off going to the University of Arizona, but her parents are fixated on Yale."
Please note: on August 28, 2015, I, Dimity McDowell, am typing that I am totally fine with my child being a Wildcat, not a Bulldog. (I may need to be reminded of that periodically. And nothing, of course, against the U of A. Just a comparison thing.)
So complicated. Unlike running, there's nothing crisp about parenting—and there's no easy way to finish this rambling post. (Are you still with me?)
More than anything, raising an adult means I'm here to witness their childhood and help them develop life skills, both emotional and practical. I need to let them suffer, fold their own clothes, figure stuff out, brush their teeth unprompted, make sure they know how to rinse and repeat, find and follow their own bliss.
And always kiss them goodnight. Then let them set their own alarms so they can get up and do it all over again.
If you feel like sharing, where are you on the already/almost/ego parenting scale?