When Helping Our Kids Doesn’t Help

By Jonathan McKee
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When helping our kids doesn't help. Picture of a young man standing in front of a road making choices.
Making Choices by Eliott Reyna, Unsplash
Sometimes letting kids make mistakes can be the best help a parent can give.

I was doing research for a book I was writing, If I Had a Parenting Do Over. I had regrets, but really, I wanted to hear from other parents. What is something they wish they could do over?  Is there a time when helping our kids doesn’t help? I wanted to find out more. So, I polled hundreds of parents asking just one question:

          “If you could go back in time and change just one parenting practice…what would you do over?”

The answers started pouring in. As they did, I began noticing common denominators:

            “I wish I wouldn’t have freaked out so much.”

            “I’d have lectured less and listened more.”

            “Stop swooping down and trying to save them from every possible danger.”

The answers were eye opening.        

Meddling

One of the biggest regrets was definitely in the area I call “meddling.” I recognized it right away because I had done it with my oldest. It wasn’t mean or selfish. Quite the opposite actually. Parents tend to meddle because they care so much, and they hate to watch their kids suffer. Therefore, they end up micromanaging every aspect of their children’s life. One mother said it well. She told me, “I wish I would have taken a step back and just let my kids experience the consequences. I thought I was helping but turns out I was robbing them of real life.”

Freaking out   

As I asked more about parenting regrets, they all used the exact same phrase to describe their actions: freaking out. This is meddling and freaking out taken to a whole new level. It’s more than just a helicopter parent—moms and dads who swoop down and save their kids from any possible tragedy. It’s one-part swooping, and another part overreacting.

And I was the king of freaking out.

My kids need to learn this principle, I thought. I need to insert myself into the situation and show them the error of their ways.

My wife Lori would say, “Jonathan, let it go.”

“But I’m OCD.” I’d say. “I can’t let anything go!”

Finally, something happened. A true “Aha!” moment for me.

When helping doesn’t help – a solution

We were hanging out with some friends of ours. I’ll call them “Tim and Christy.” One particular moment is cemented in my memory as our families spent the day together at a water park.

The kids were all laughing together and playing on the water slides, when Tim and Christy’s twelve-year-old daughter quietly meandered toward us with her head hanging down. Christy immediately noticed her daughter’s cowering and responded in a nurturing way.

“Hey, baby. You okay?”

“Yeah. I just don’t want to go on the slides anymore.”

“That’s okay,” her mom said casually. “Take as much time as you need.”

Eventually, the young girl explained that some mean kids had cut in front of them in line and were intimidating her.

Point these little punks out. I’ll toss em’ in the wave pool! I thought. But Christy was much more in tune to her daughter’s situation.

What are you going to do?

Christy looked at her daughter and asked, “So what are you going to do?”

I was shocked. What do you mean, ‘what are you going to do?’ She’s twelve-years-old. How does she know what’s right? I don’t even know what’s right in this situation. How’s she possibly going to solve it? I wanted to help.

And that’s just it. Life is full of messy situations that don’t have easy solutions. These bullies weren’t the last mean kids the daughter was ever going to encounter. And more importantly, in just a few years this young girl was going to probably be in a college dorm or maybe even an Air Force barracks making these decisions on her own. Mom wouldn’t be there to step in and “help handle” the situation then. That is to say, their might as well start figuring it out now. This is the type of help that is actually helpful.

And that’s what the tween did. She figured it out. And her mom actually followed up with the famous counselor line, “So how’d that work out for you?”

That moment literally changed the way I parented.

Testing out real help – trust

A week later my youngest was having a fit. “Dad, Alyssa isn’t sharing!”

I tried my best Christy. “So, what are you going to do?”

My daughter didn’t even blink. “Hit her.”

I laughed, probably more at myself because I was doubting whether this was going to work. Did helping her really help? But I persisted. “Well, I think you know how that will end up, so I’m going to trust you can figure out a better solution.”

Trust.

Whodathunkit.

My daughters actually did work it out that day. Who knows, maybe God stepped in and intervened that one time just to teach me a lesson. But they worked it out. That was the kind of help they needed.

No, I’m not some hippy parent who began letting my 8 and 10-year-olds do whatever they wanted…but I slowly learned to let go and let them learn to discern.

The secret?

I kept my eye on the calendar. I kept picturing them 8 years later, then 5 years, then just a couple years later, in that college dorm by themselves making decisions on their own. Was I preparing them for that day? Or was I meddling or freaking out and making every decision for them? Was I really helping our kids or not?

What about you? Are you ready to offer real help by giving your kids a chance to make mistakes and learn from them?

Let me ask, “So what are you going to do?”

More ways for parents to help kids grow the right way:

© 2019 by Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. First published on FocusOnTheFamily.com in November.

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About the Author

Picture of author and speaker, Jonathan McKee
Jonathan McKee

Jonathan McKee, a Focus on the Family Associate, has authored more than 20 books including The Teen’s Guide to Social Media and If I Had a Parenting Do Over. He has over 20 years of experience in youth ministry and offers the wisdom he’s gained through that experience as he speaks around the world to parents and youth leaders. He …

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