Recently I was involved in a very complicated situation with a senior student. An issue had arisen with a member of staff where the student had a justifiable grievance. A meeting between the student and staff member was scheduled and the student’s mother was asked if she would like to attend to support her daughter. The parent explained that they had discussed this as a family and had concluded that it was an important part of her daughter’s development to navigate this process on her own. She was only a few short months from making the transition to the adult world after all. Good parenting often goes unnoticed, but I noticed this.
Contrast this with a situation that should be the domain of sketch comedy, but is becoming an all too frequent reality. In this vignette, an adult male’s parents make a representation to his boss to discuss their anger at his recent unsuccessful promotion application, their desire for him to be able to be granted more prestigious project portfolios and the fact that the criticism he has received around failure to meet certain work expectations would be better replaced with more positive reinforcement. While perhaps an embellishment, the need by some young adults for their parent’s advocacy, in what have traditionally been understood to be their independent lives, is all too common.
Pop culture throws up names which are often not particularly helpful around this phenomenon. We use pejorative terms such as ‘snowplow’ or ‘helicopter’ to describe a type of over-parenting without really understanding what sits behind the parental decision making that underpins the terminology. Most of us have an intrinsic sense that you can make what seem to be correct parenting decisions in the short term that might be creating the foundation for longer term issues, but few of us really explore the mechanisms that lead to this dynamic forming.
Much is made of the level of anxiety that exists in children in modern society, with the blame for this placed on social media, pressures in school and future uncertainty. Perhaps the reality is that what we have is an increasing level of parental anxiety that impacts on our children. Perhaps we spend too much time thinking about what our children’s needs are and not enough time thinking about what good parenting looks like.
I am always interested in watching children learn to walk and the approach that parents take to support this. In the ideal scenario, children have enough objects that they can clamber up to stand on two legs. Most of us can remember our child standing with a look of pride and mastery as they demonstrate one of the key attributes of our humanity, the ability to stand upright. The next progression is to turn this into a step. This is inevitably met with failure and the need to try again. This dynamic establishes some parenting practices that might exist throughout the subsequent parent/child relationship. Parents see that this development of ability is a significant milestone that comes with some risks. Skilled parents tend to allow children to wobble their way forward without intervention unless they are going to clearly hurt themselves. At that point, parents intervene just enough to avoid an injury, but not enough to disguise the fact that there are dangers in the new world that is being explored of which the child needs to become aware.
Some parents are not vigilant enough. They allow their child to wander into situations without oversight and this leads to them getting hurt. Most toddlers can cope with the odd knock, but – if this happens regularly – it is likely that they will stop exploring. And for small children, this will stifle their development. You can also be over protective. If parents are too diligent in removing risks, toddlers never develop an appreciation that these risks exist. Protection paradoxically makes them more vulnerable. Finding the balance is the core job of parents as they support their children through these developing years.
The contexts change as children get older, but the principles remain the same. We are trying to walk behind our children at a distance that allows them to learn about themselves and their world, only stepping in where it is really necessary. We aim to be a filter to support their still-developing decision making abilities, while not preventing them from accessing the myriad of experiences and emotions that are the foundation of their understanding of their world and how they positively navigate their way through its opportunities and its dangers.
If we are too diligent in stepping in to stop our child from falling, we need to recognise the dynamic that is taking place. When will we allow them to stand on their own two feet? When will we give them responsibility for sorting out challenges of their making, rather than trying to do this for them? When will we trust ourselves to let our children operate independently of us because we are confident that we have provided them with the foundation that allows them to do this appropriately? The ability to answer these questions form the basis of what skilled parents do right through their child’s life. They keep their eye on the prize of what their child needs in the long term even if that creates some challenges in the short term.
Perhaps the goal of all parents should be to reach a point where their child is able to calmly outline the approach that they propose to take in dealing with a complex situation in their lives, respecting their parents as a trusted sounding board rather than a problem solver – a transition that has been occurring since they took their first steps. If this happens somewhere around the time a young person is making the transition into life beyond school, we have likely all done a better than average job.
Written by Dean Griffin.