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How to find the right balance between helpful and helicopter parenting

One of the trickiest aspects of parenting seems to be the fact that those little kids just keep changing. Just when you think you’ve figured out the perfect bedtime routine to get your toddler to sleep (without spending hours in her room), she changes and doesn’t go for it anymore. Just when you learn how to wear the baby carrier and not break your back, the baby outgrows the carrier or prefers the stroller instead.

This is especially true when it comes to figuring out how much to help your kids.

Of course we always want to help our kids. However, since kids change almost constantly, the task they needed help with yesterday is something within their realm of skills today. As our kids grow, we have to start encouraging them to do some things on their own.

How do you balance fostering independence and still being there when they need you?

Let your child lead

When our babies are born they need us so much, and we get into a habit of doing everything for them. Then one day we start to realize they aren’t babies anymore and they can do a lot of things on their own. However, this change is so gradual that it’s easy to miss.

The good news is that our children will often let us know when it’s time to let go a bit. I remember the first time my youngest son decided he didn’t want to be rocked to sleep anymore. We had been nursing and rocking to sleep (or near sleep) for about a year. We both enjoyed it. Then one day, shortly after his first birthday, he just pointed to his bed after story time. I was a bit sad, but learned to relish his little efforts at maturity. He knew it was time to move on, even if I did not.

...But consider their temperament and safety

Around toddlerhood I realized I couldn’t always follow my child’s lead when it came to balancing independence with helpfulness. I had to consider both his safety and his temperament. With kids who are particularly strong-willed or adventurous, their desire to do things independently is often strong. They are not intentionally trying to be difficult, they just have a keen sense of confidence, and they take it as an affront to their strength if you try to help too much.

Understanding your child’s temperament can be helpful for avoiding power struggles. The key I found lies in allowing them to feel empowered as much as you can, while still maintaining their safety.

In real life terms, this often means choosing your battles wisely.

Consider each situation independently—are there ways in which you can allow a bit of freedom without compromising safety? Maybe that means you allow your child not to hold hands on the sidewalk, but hand-holding is a must in parking lots. If your toddler insists on putting on her own shoes, try to allow enough time in the morning for her to at least try.

Sometimes the balance between independence and helping can involve tag-teaming a task—mom or dad does one part and your child does the other. I found this helpful when my toddler wanted to try to buckle himself in his car seat. He didn’t have the motor skills to do the bottom buckle, but he could (with much trying and patience) do the top buckle. So the rule became that I clipped the bottom buckle and he did the top one.

Little strives towards independence are great, but they often require a lot of patience on our part.

Language matters

Another key in finding the balance between independence and assistance is using language that empowers your child. If your child wants to do a task that you know they are unable to do on their own, flip the situation around and talk about how she can help you complete this difficult task.

This often works well with kitchen tasks. Little hands always want to help cook, cut (yikes!) or mix while you’re in the kitchen. By showing how she can help you, you empower her to feel independent, but you still have a bit of control over the task.

Let go of the outcome

In the struggle between independence and helpfulness, the aspect that often trips up parents is the outcome. If I allow my toddler to put on her own clothes, she will be mismatched or disheveled. This is not the outcome that most of us prefer, but if it fosters a bit of independence and prevents a meltdown, then I feel like it’s worth it.

As with all things, there’s a time and place for everything. Perhaps allowing your toddler the freedom to dress herself on school picture day may not be the best idea, but if it’s just a random Sunday at home, why not? Letting go of the outcome often helps parents get more comfortable with their children’s strive towards independence.

Ultimately, our children’s strides towards independence are signs that we parents are doing something right. They feel confident and secure enough to try new tasks on their own. Finding the right balance between helping and not hindering their independence is a tricky task we will undoubtedly be working on until they reach adulthood.

Amy Webb, PhD is a scholar turned stay-at-home mom with two young sons. With her blog, The Thoughtful Parent, she brings academic child development research into the lives of parents in the trenches of child-rearing. She does not claim to be a parenting guru, but rather a translator of academic research into knowledge that parents can actually use.


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