My natural tendency as a mom is to be vastly overprotective. Particularly since my son (the older of my two children) tends to be anxious about new situations (gee, wonder where he gets that from??), I am hesitant to launch him off into the unknown unsupervised. But at age 6, he is more than ready to deal with most situations without me.
I, however, am not.
Fortunately, I am aware that I am not doing him any favors by hovering over him and doing things for him that he can – or should be able to – do himself. I’m not going to increase his shaky confidence by making him feel like he needs help all the time. By treating him as if he can do things, I force him to learn how to do those very things, and to prove to himself that he can do those things. I know this. But it’s still hard to do.
There are times when I have to literally bite my tongue or sit on my hands to avoid helping him. He gets frustrated quickly, and often gives up after only a brief, half-hearted attempted at a task like turning a shirt right-side out, unbuttoning a stiff button, or figuring out a difficult math problem. But I’ve begun to take baby steps in making him solve his own problems. I start by giving him a time limit: he needs to try on his own for, say, 5 minutes before I come and help him. It’s taken us both some time to make those 5 minutes be actual problem-solving time rather than pretending to try while watching the clock tick down. If he’s still struggling, I explain to him what to do: reach into the armhole and grab the cuff; pull the button towards the center of the buttonhole; look at the numbers in the ones place. And then, once again, I give him time to try and think and struggle. And I don’t volunteer to help again unless and until he specifically asks me to. And finally, I show him what to do, but then make him do it. I reach inside and turn the shirt right side out, but then I turn it back inside out and make him fix it. I show him how to angle the button and slide it through the hole, then rebutton it and have him try. I draw boxes with the numbers in the tens and ones places in them, then give him a similar problem with different numbers to solve by himself.
It’s frustrating for both of us – at first. But if we both struggle through it, the triumph of independence is a reward for us both. And the next time the situation arises, I can remind him that I know he can solve that problem, because I’ve seen him do it. He might need a little reminding, but each time I force him to solve that problem without help (or with less help each time), the quicker he can solve it, and the more confident he becomes.
I’d like to think that my helicopter mom tendencies will wane as he grows older and more independent, but I suspect they will become even harder to fight as the problems he struggles with grow more mature. When he’s bullied on the playground, when he’s snubbed by a friend, when he isn’t invited to a party or doesn’t make the soccer team or gets turned down by the girl he asked to the school dance, I will desperately want to step in and fix everything for him. But I can’t do that. I won’t do that. As difficult as these lessons are to learn, they are his lessons, not mine. I will give him advice, I will give him support, but I won’t give him answers. I’ll guide him to find his own answers. It won’t be an easy journey for either of us, but the more difficult path leads to a much happier and healthier adulthood than the easier one.
So when he tells me I’m a mean mom because I won’t do his science fair project for him, or write up a job application for him, or call his company for him when his paycheck is wrong, I’ll just smile and know that I’m not really a mean mom. I’m a great mom.
And he's a great kid, who's going to be an even greater adult.