A while ago, I wrote a blog piece about the importance of paying attention to your child. The inspiration for that post came from an article about distracted parenting and the rise of childhood accidents due to cell phone use. It’s still a very important thing for all of us to think about. Children crave our attention and notice when we’re not paying attention to them. We don’t want them to be glued to their devices, so we should not be modeling that. However, there is another side to the issue of attention. Some of us pay too much attention to our children, not allowing them to have lives of their own to develop their own sense of safety and their own likes and dislikes. This has been referred to as “helicopter parenting.” I only heard this term recently, but it resonated with me fully.
My own mother was a helicopter parent. She hovered over me, choosing my clothes, my hobbies and even my friends. The only time I could get away from her was when I played outside or when I went to school. Even when I played outside, she would sometimes come out and direct the games with the neighborhood kids, which for me was humiliating. I didn’t mind having involved parents and felt lucky in some ways, but she went overboard. I wasn’t made to do chores because I didn’t do them exactly the right way. Homework was always supervised, so I stopped bringing it home. As I grew older, I resented her constant intervention and rebelled whenever and wherever I could. My mom and I fought constantly. I’ve always felt sorry that we couldn’t figure out how to find a common ground or make some kind of compromise.
The harm that was done to me as a result was huge. I moved out on my own not knowing how to take care of myself or even how to do simple tasks such as doing my laundry, keeping my house tidy and clean or shopping for my own food. I floundered with fashion, wearing outrageous outfits that I should have experimented with as a child. I bought too much of one kind of food and not enough of another. I didn’t know how to budget money because I never had any of my own and was not allowed to work, even as a teenager, except for a rare babysitting job. I found myself in dangerous compromising situations because I’d never honed my own sense of danger.
My mother was the child of an alcoholic, and I now realize that her control issues were a symptom of feeling out-of-control as a child. It is a common occurrence in adult children of alcoholics. Although I finally understood my mom’s motivations, that understanding didn’t help me to be able to function any easier. As a result, I determined to teach my own children self-reliance. There were times when I probably went a little overboard, like when I insisted that my 3-year old daughter go up to the fast food counter to ask for her own ketchup. But I meant well. And, I’m sure, so did my mother.
One of the things I think I did right was in not assisting my children to climb something they couldn’t reach on their own. If they had to get themselves into a tree or climbing structure by themselves, I felt that they would have a better sense of their safety, and I saw that work time after time. If they could get up, they were always able to get down and didn’t freeze out of fear. I would watch other children be boosted into something they wanted to climb, and either be afraid because they went too high and had to be helped back down, would start crying for help almost immediately because they were unsure of themselves, or they would slip and fall because they had a false sense of security.
I also made sure that my kids always had their own money to do with what they wanted. Their money was not tied to chores. They got an allowance because they were a part of the family. Their allowance was half their age. They sometimes asked for advice on what to do with it, but I never volunteered that information on my own. All three of them handle money differently as adults. My youngest is much better than anyone else in the family about money, and I take no credit for that. The credit goes to him and what he figured out for himself. However, unlike him, my two older children grew up during a time when their dad and I were below the poverty level, so they sometimes felt deprived which I know affected the way they dealt with finances.
When my children were babies, I was overwhelmed with making money and keeping up a household. I didn’t spend every minute observing them. I kept my eye on them, but they had time on their own, too. If I needed to take a shower, I would put them in their crib to play. If I was doing dishes or laundry, I would put up a baby gate so that they could hear and see me but not be underfoot or getting into trouble. They learned to occupy themselves. This is an important skill for all of us to develop. In this age of televisions in every house, cell phones and other electronic devices, children are needing to be entertained every minute, or they are bored to tears.
Most of us have known “only” children who are demanding and selfish. They’re not born that way. It’s learned behavior for them because their parents cater to their every whim. I’m sure I did that with my first child for a while. How could we not? They are everything to us, and of course we want them to be happy. However, once a sibling comes along, there’s another child that gets tossed into the mix, and everything changes. We are forced to alter our parenting to accommodate two. Suddenly, the first child might have to wait to have that book read. They might not get to go for a walk when they want because their younger sibling is napping. Or, maybe they can’t be as loud for fear that they’ll wake the baby. Parents often feel guilty, but we have to realize that it’s the natural course of things. Our children need to feel disappointment. They need to learn to wait and accept the fact that they may not get everything they want when they want it because the rest of the world will probably not be as accommodating as their parents, and shouldn’t they learn that while they’re young?
This doesn’t mean that we don’t still try to make our children happy. Of course, we should play with them, read to them, sing with them, take them on outings and cuddle them. It just means that we need to temper that with our own needs. Our children learn about life from us. We are teaching them about love and relationships, including self-love. I’ve had musician friends who have given up their instruments because their children didn’t like it when they played. What is that teaching them? I’ve had other musician friends who ignored their children when playing their instruments, and what is that teaching them? The biggest lesson here is one of balance.
When I’m playing a song or talking to someone and my child or grandchild wants my attention, I ask them to wait a minute. When the song is over, or the conversation is paused, I respond to what they want. If it’s something that’s really important, I stop what I’m doing and attend to it. If they’re asking because they’re bored or jealous of me not giving them my undivided attention, I remind them that I’m doing what I love and invite them to join in or wait until I’m finished. I never make them wait too long because I want them to learn that I will be there for them but also get to enjoy what I love. In doing that, I’m teaching them that we are all equally important. Automatic self-sacrifice in every situation is not necessarily a lesson I want them to learn.
My own parents were very affectionate with each other. They danced together, hugged and cuddled. I grew up seeing that as natural. After all, I was a product of that love. Did I feel jealous when I saw my mom sitting on my dad’s lap? Sure, I did. Did she hop off because of that? Certainly not. They explained that they loved each other just as they loved me, and I would get my turn. That’s what it all boils down to … taking turns and sharing. And, it’s not just about sharing toys but sharing time and affection, too. Ultimately, parents know best how to raise their own children, but sometimes it's helpful to have a different perspective. I know it was always helpful to me. No one can tell us if we are doing right or wrong. We all have to judge for ourselves. We each know our own children and situations, and this topic is a tricky one. Once again, it's all about balance.