Gregory K. Popcak, Ph.D.
You’ve heard of the “honey-do’s” the lists that plague husbands the world over. Well now there is the parenting equivalent, the “honey-don’ts.” These are the mental lists of all the things that kids shouldn’t do, can’t touch, and had best not try. Providing guidance to our children is an extraordinarily important part of being a good parent. Children’s intellect and impulse control are not well-developed. They need parents to guide them, form them, and help them negotiate the challenges associated with leading successful lives and having healthy relationships. But when does guidance become suffocation? Though overall, crime and public health and safety statistics say the world is safer healthier place, parents are more anxious than ever. In 1969, 41% of kids rode their bikes to school compared to 13% in 2001. Death by injury has dropped by 50% since 1980, but parents in communities across the US lobby hard to remove climbing structures from playgrounds because they are “too dangerous.” And 6-8 year olds have 25% less free play time today than they did in 1981. Today, structured play and scheduled play-dates are the rule, not the exception.
None of this is meant to suggest that parental presence and involvement is a bad thing. In some ways, parents have more involved because of the structure of our communities. In 1969, most people knew their neighbors. Rightly or wrongly, parents felt they could trust the people living around them because they were fixtures. People didn’t move around as much. Families stayed in one town, or even the same neighborhood, for generations. But today, a Pew Center study found that only 19% of respondents could name all of their neighbors. A lack of familiarity breeds suspicion. We may smile at the neighbors, but we don’t know them, and we’re pretty sure they can’t be trusted around our kids. Plus, there is just more information about parenting than there used to be. Before Dr. Spock came along, nobody ever thought that there could be anything objective about parenting. You just did what came naturally. Now, only 3 generations later, there is so much information about the best way to make sure a kid is properly, fed, bred, socialized, and turned-out, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by everything it takes to do parenting, “right.”
Attachment vs. Overparenting
There is a danger, of course, in just throwing up our hands and rolling our eyes at all those over-involved moms and dads. It is possible, in our reaction to the overparenting phenomenon, to treat any parenting recommendation that challenges us or is outside of our comfort zone as if it is “too over the top” and just another sign of helicopter parenting. We have to be careful of the temptation to be more in love with our comfort zones than we are with our kids. We must remember that self-donation is a critical part of healthy parenting. Being involved with our kids is good. Providing adequate supervision of play dates so kids can get along well with each other is good. Knowing that our kids are safe is good. Knowing how to train kids to eat well, pray well, and live healthy lives is good. Helping our kids know that we are available to answer their questions and meet their needs at every age and stage is good. All of these things constitute healthy attachment and provide the basis for our kids academic, social, and spiritual well-being.
But doing these things with too intense an attitude stops being attachment and starts being enmeshment. Enmeshment is attachment’s evil twin. It is a kind of parental presence that is crippling. Enmeshed parents are so concerned that their child will do the wrong thing, get the wrong answer, or attempt to do things the wrong way that they are constantly intervening whether their kids need it or not or want it or not. While there is a right way to do many things, enmeshed parents tend to believe that there is “absolutely one right way” to do everything; cleaning your room, talking to friends, saying your prayers, eating at the table. They see it as their job to swoop in and intervene at the first sign of struggle lest the child “fail.” A recent study published in the Journal of Pediatrics found that kids from enmeshed families are at higher risk for anxiety disorders and both academic and social problems because they can’t think for themselves and are so stressed about doing things “the right way” that they can’t do anything independently for fear of making a mistake. In other words, it is not the fact that a parent is present, informed, and involved that is the problem. That’s basic attachment, a healthy ingredient in any parent-child relationship. Rather, it is the parent’s own fear of failure combined with the fear that the child might fail at some task (or relationship) which would reflect badly on my parental effort that pushes attachment to enmeshment, conveying to the child the message that, “you can’t do anything right without me at your side.” In searching for the line between healthy attachment and over-parenting, parents would do well to follow this simple rule. In the face of a new task, “Know your child. Watch initially. Teach when necessary. Back off as circumstances permit.”
Know your child
Knowing your child means putting in the time to know how your child reacts in certain environments, what keeps him calm and on target, and what help he needs cooling down when he starts to get too worked up. It means having put enough time and energy into the relationship with your child that he knows that you are available to help if needed, but that you also know what he is capable of and that you expect him to use those abilities before turning to you.
Resist the urge to swoop in and take over the second your child is in a new situation or seems to be struggling. Let your child wrestle with the new puzzle, or try to handle the disagreement with his brother. See what he does. Give him a couple of attempts to resolve the situation on his own before stepping in with any advice. Watch his emotional temperature . Know the line between frustration and futility. If your child is just frustrated because he has made a few mistakes or missteps, that’s ok. Let it go. But if your child’s effort is becoming futile and he can’t figure out how to negotiate a turn with his friends after several tries or can’t figure out how to accomplish a task and looks like he is ready to give up, then you might offer some basic support.
Teach When Necessary
Sometime after your child is becoming frustrated, but before things become futile, offer your child a helpful suggestion. Provide the least information you think your child will need to figure the rest out on his own. Ask, “How could you say that more respectfully?” instead of telling him exactly what to say. Say, “I see you’re holding that squiggly piece of the puzzle. Is there another squiggly piece that might fit? No? Did you look in the left side of the pile?” instead of picking up the piece and saying, “Here it is. Put them together like this.” The point is, you want to ask questions that will give just enough hints without solving the problem for them. This is where enmeshed parents make their fatal mistake. They can’t leave anything to chance, and they don’t trust that their kid will “get it.” They fear parenting failure so much that they need to resolve the tension more for themselves than for their child. Sure, there will be times that your child just needs you to intervene and show them how something is done, but that should be the exception, not the rule.
Back Off As Soon As Possible
Once your child has gotten just enough information to figure out what to do, praise him (“Nice work! You did a great job figuring that out!”) and back off. In future situations, repeat the know-watch-teach-back off cycle. None of this is to say that any child learns everything they need to learn having been prompted once. Most kids need to do things over and over before a new habit becomes ingrained, but you can speed their learning, their sense of independence, and their healthy sense of self-confidence by providing the support they need to succeed in life, not by doing life’s homework for them.