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How Much Help Should We Give Our Children?

Parenting is hard.
Not the kind of hard that comes when a colleague sends you an email with a word you’ve never seen before (like “epistolary”) and you struggle to figure out its meaning without resorting to Google definitions. Not the kind of hard that comes when you’re walking the streets of Bulgaria looking for a restaurant and all you can find are a bunch of ‘pectopants’.
Not that kind of hard.
Parenting is the kind of hard where you toss and turn for hours on your pillow wondering if the choice you made earlier in the day will destroy your child’s chance at a happy and prosperous future. The kind of hard where your child comes to you emotionally ripped apart, and you have no idea what to do next. But you want to do something. But you don’t know what that “something” is.
And parenting doesn’t get any easier when you jump a few socioeconomic ladder rungs.
The higher you rise, the more choices you have, the more missteps you can make. The more you can kick yourself for your error.
My naive younger self did the offspring thing in the expat haven of Singapore, and I thought I had put every detail in place to give my children the perfect upbringing. With my career choice, I had the gift of a decade of analysis of child rearing theory and hundreds of student/family case studies to see what worked and what didn’t. I thought I had the formula.
One of the key ingredients of the formula was the idea of help. How much help is too much? How much help might provide instant gratification or relief, but actually fosters bad habits that lead to parental crutches, that when removed, inevitably lead to a fall?
As a teacher I’d been exposed to a host of “icky” interactions that made me hypersensitive to the ugliness of help. I was offered a couple iPhones by a celebrity parent whose child earned a B+ at the quarter break and the parent was worried this would impact their Harvard admission chances (those phones made it into our Pep Rally raffle later in the week). I received a dozen emails from the parent of a 6th grader who didn’t make the basketball team, and this parent scolded me that my choice had catapulted her child into anorexia, depression and self-loathing (and that these ailments would inevitably improve if she could just make the team). On the phone, a parent casually referenced a defamation of character lawsuit after I had shared that her son would not be able to speak at assemblies for the near future after he had made an off-color “girls and goalies” joke in front of 1600 students. And this says nothing about the scores of emails and phone calls I once received in the weeks leading up to and right after report card season about how I had no idea how much their child’s grades were hurting their child’s feelings.
Oh, I knew. I still know. I too have had children who have hurt when they didn’t make the team, get the right grade, or hear the nicest comment in class. And I too was young once and didn’t make the mark on an occasion or two. Empathy for these situations is not something I lack.
So when my children were born and as they got older, I constantly was asking myself, “How much help should I give?” How many doors should I open, barriers should I remove, compliments should I grant? Initially I swung the pendulum too far.
When my son scored a few football goals in a game and overly celebrated, I called him over and told him to “Act like you’ve been there before, and just jog back to your side of the field.” When my daughter’s 2nd grade classmates had to decorate an identity doll, I offered little help, and when these creations were all posted on the bulletin board wall, it was fairly clear that some other parents had embodied their inner seamstress through a fair amount of Hobby Lobby/Pinterest inspiration. When my son asked for some injury support while I was in the midst of a weekend geriatric softball game, I told him to put some ice on it and we’d take care of it later (only to later find myself the key antagonist in his 4th grade feature article titled – “Suck it up!”).
I’d swung the pendulum too far.
At the same time my children were hitting adolescence, Lori Gottlieb came out with an article in The Atlantic called “How to Land Your Kids in Therapy?” in which she spoke of how our obsession in making sure our children never felt sad was leading to a generation of “teacups” so fragile that in early adulthood, they break at the first sign of strife. In her article, she shared the importance of accepting the emotion of disappointment in childhood and then learning the skills to move beyond that emotion. She quoted clinical psychologist Wendy Mogel who begged, ““Please let them be devastated at age 6 and not have their first devastation be in college! Please, please, please let them be devastated many times on the soccer field!”
As my children exited high school, they both independently shared they wished I had supported them more in their classes and with their challenges with faculty and coaches. They knew/know my reasons. They knew how as a faculty parent, I had to be especially careful not to use any influence to avoid the perception of nepotism, so that all of their achievements would undeniably be their own. Sure, they knew all the reasons, but they would have liked more help.
As my eldest daughter now graduates university in T-minus 5 days, I’ve been quite a bit reflective of late. I still wonder how much help to give. She’s now applying for jobs, and I want to offer my support in reading her CV and cover letter, and maybe even doing some mock interviews. But I doubt she’ll take the help. She sure doesn’t need it. In the special sauce of nurture, nature and free will, my children have made themselves from their free will.
But I still second guess myself, and know you will too. Second guessing is part of the parenting job description.
But if I could offer some advice, it would be this…try as much as possible to have your conversations with your children be about the choices your children can control – their spheres of influence. In their adulthoods, they will run into vindictive bosses, unfair employment evaluation systems, rude colleagues, and systemic cronyism. They can’t control those realities. They can only make themselves the best version of themselves. They can only see the barriers that get in the way of their success as challenges to overcome – challenges that are far more overcomable if (under your guidance) they’ve developed the emotional resilience and tangible skills that give them a vault of solution options to access.
And one last piece of advice.
If ever your son calls out that he has a wound while you’re momentarily distracted in your own pursuits, I recommend double-checking the severity of the gash before advising him to just put some ice on it.
It’ll save you a bit of embarrassment at the all-parent read aloud.

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