What is the difference between helping your child in their studies and enabling that same child?
Sometimes, however, we do things inadvertently that have far-reaching effects on our children. I know and understand a mother’s heart. We want to protect, love, and nurture our children, but what happens when that desire to protect becomes a hindrance in their progress toward adulthood? Today I would like to talk about a specific instance where the best of intentions can yield the worst of results.
I think the hardest thing for a mother to do is to set an obligation (in the adult world, we call this a deadline) and then force a child to stick to it. Even more difficult is to have consequences that are negative if the obligation is missed. My children have complained, loudly and enthusiastically at times, when they have endured the consequences of missing a deadline. It has not been pretty.
Let me put forth a scenario with which perhaps you will identify. I have made a request of my 11-year-old son to write a three-page essay on a historical figure. First, I am careful to think about the parameters of the essay before assigning him the task. As a colleague of mine says, I want to “set him up for success”. This means I have thought about what is age-appropriate—in this case, he has experience with writing a three-page paper. I am careful to provide coaching in the process, being available to answer questions, guide him in the process, and, most importantly, encourage him. What I do not do is do it for him.
What would that careful coaching look like? We’d talk about the paper topic, and I would ask him to put some ideas down on paper. At first they would just be rough notes. Then I would ask him to think through what he would like to say. I would even have him record his thoughts so that he can just think about what he wants to say, instead of having to think of the mechanics of writing, grammar, spelling, and punctuation. I may even go so far as to let him dictate his thoughts to me so that we could get them on paper. The writing, however, will be his, and the construction of the draft will be his. Most importantly, the final product will be his.
I have also found it beneficial for us to talk about “how long do you think this task will take you?” Learning how long a task takes and managing the time in that task is a very adult skill. I don’t want to throw him into the deep end of the pond, so I am willing to negotiate on the time investment. However, once we have settled on the time frame, then the task completion is his. I am not going to chase him and remind him, nor will I extend the deadline. There will be consequences if the deadline is missed.
If I help him finish the assignment, or if I change the deadline because he has not stuck to the task, I have taught him a lesson – the lesson is that there are no consequences. That is enabling him, which is the opposite of setting him up for success.
What happens if he misses the deadline? At one time or another all of my children have missed out – on a fun outing, a sporting event, even once a birthday party of their own design. I wanted them to know that their actions would have consequences, and I sincerely believed that learning to manage the tasks set before them was part of teaching them to be responsible for themselves. Is it fun? Not by a long shot.
I apply these same kinds of consequences to daily lessons. For instance, when I ask my 11-year-old to complete a math lesson, I have that same conversation about how long does HE think it will take him to complete it. Once we have discussed that, then we will write the starting time on his paper (just so we both remain accountable to the time). I know that his math lessons are developmentally appropriate in terms of how long they should take. Once he has begun a lesson, I will check with him periodically. I too must be accountable to him in that I cannot wander off or become so engaged in another pursuit that I don’t check in with him. The ubiquitous presence of technology today makes this task for me even hard. (No phones during the school day for me!) Does that mean I will sit with him for every step of the lesson? Not at eleven years old – but also bear in mind I have modeled my expectations for him from the very beginning of our time together. Also, I have the expectation that at the age of eleven he can be responsible for himself for a math lesson – as long as he knows I am still present if he needs me. What if he doesn’t complete the assignment in the agreed-upon amount of time? Then we will move on to something else, and he will have to complete it in his free time.
I talk to moms all the time who say their school days last 8, 9, even 10 hours. That sounds awful to me. I want to be here for my children, but if all we do is school, then school becomes miserable.
This is not an easy path to walk. I have to model setting and completing deadlines in my life so that my children see I am accountable, too. Is it worth it? It is a delicate balance of sorting between what is helping and what is enabling. You will find that you will ask yourself often where the line is in a given situation. It will be worth it.
I had the pleasure of spending some time with my 24-year-old daughter this past week. She was one of the most experienced “receivers” of my hard line when it comes to deadlines. This is HER perspective of what that was like:
“I thought you were the worst! It made me SO angry when you would hold me accountable for assignment deadlines. I missed a lot of them – and always found a way to blame you. It was not until I got to my first semester of college that I finally realized your hard line was just what I needed. I could finally see that you were creating an environment that would make it possible for me to be successful on my own.”
I asked her if she had any advice from the perspective of being a child who endured a parent’s hard line, and she smiled and said, “Your kids are going to hate you for it when they are young, but there WILL come a point in time when they say, sincerely, ‘Thank you’. You just have to be willing to patiently wait for it.”