Why do parents overprotect their children from making mistakes?
When our babies are very young, we often take the time to babyproof our homes so that it is a safe environment where they won’t get hurt. Built within us is an innate program to protect our young, and there are times when this is entirely appropriate.
What if, however, our short-term protection of the young is actually disadvantageous to them in the long term?
What if the best way to prepare them for adulthood is to stop protecting them so thoroughly when they are small?
I remember the day when I realized I had fallen into the trap of oversimplifying my children’s lives and how it was disadvantageous to them. As I began to hustle to fit an extra trip to the school into my already busy day because my daughter (yet again) had left her homework at home, a thought stopped me in my tracks.
Why did this keep happening? It kept happening because I kept bailing her out! One bailout is fair enough, but twice and then a third time left me thinking, “seriously, get your act together, mum.” I called the school back, explaining that I would not be able to make it.
The result was that my daughter had to face the consequences from her teacher, and she made sure that it never happened again.
How to know when to step forward and when to step back?
This is a very personal line to tread, and each parent should be guided by their intuition. Sometimes it is appropriate for us to step up, and sometimes it’s more appropriate to step back. That is the fun and curious journey of parenting. There is no one answer to fit every child in every situation. As a parent, we need to dance “with it” and feel what is right, and it will help us to guide our children to the next level.
Do you find yourself hunting for your child’s sports uniform to wash yet again? Maybe they will need to play in a dirty uniform this time. Of course, this approach means we need to be comfortable with possibly being judged as a ‘bad parent,’ but the long-term lesson and development of skills are better than the short-term judgment.
What if we hold space for some of the age-appropriate experiences that we have labeled as ‘bad’ or ‘negative’ and – within the safe, supportive, and loving environment we have cultivated – frame each challenge as a curious opportunity to learn and grow?
What if we look at these times as important chapters in our children’s development, and instead of jumping in to fix them, we leave room for our children to develop important tools which will carry them through life beyond us?
Uncomfortable? Undoubtedly. Powerful? Absolutely.
What gifts will we receive from this challenge?
When we provide plenty of safe explorations into the unpacking of life lessons, what we are doing is communicating to our children that we believe in them and that we know that they are capable. Offering these options in a non-judgmental environment allows them to explore life and become an active participant in their life’s journey.
I remember when we first emigrated to Australia. After this major move, we were pretty tight on funds. Starting another life with three young children was, without a doubt, an adventure! One of our local department stores did an excellent back-to-school deal which included a backpack, lunch bag, ice block, snack pots, and a drink bottle. “So economical; this is my lucky day!” I thought. However, my daughter desperately wanted the lunch bag with her favorite boyband on the lid. It was more expensive on its own than the economy pack. She was pleading with me to buy it for her. Wanting to do my best to make her comfortable at her new school, I offered a compromise. I offered to give her the amount of money that I was willing to put towards her boyband lunch bag, but she would have to use her old bag from last year and would have to put the extra money from her own bank account to buy it. She thought about it and declined. She understood the impact it would have on her bank account and wasn't as keen to spend her own money. Lesson learned. Are overprotective and strict guidelines more harmful than beneficial?
As parents, we want our children to have the most blissful experience possible. However, since they only have one childhood to learn difficult lessons in a safe environment, rigid guidelines can be disadvantageous to them as they approach adulthood. Allowing children to experience discomforting, challenging, and sometimes painful experiences can be the greatest gift we can give them as parents that will carry them through life as they emerge from beneath our wings and ultimately leave us.
There are some ‘non-negotiables’ included in this, though. Our standards, values, and ethics should filter through every decision we make, as parents, as kids, and as a collective family.
These rigid parameters create the scaffold upon which our children build their lives.
Examples of the non-negotiables:
Within this framework, we hold space for ‘mistakes,’ exploration, curiosity, and challenge. We should always strive to teach our children how to think, not what not to think.
Examples of overprotection and strict guidelines that prevent curiosity and trial and error:
I have found through working with countless families, that rigidity and over-controlling tendencies within families come from a place of fear. Parents want what is best for their children and can fear making a critical error. Parents can also fear being judged as a bad parent, having their kids hate them, and may fear that their kids will not be able to handle the adversity.
Life is messy. We cannot, and should not, protect our kids from every element of this. Whether it is playing in the mud, investigating the vastness of spilled milk, or navigating through friendship issues, the messiness will find us no matter how much we try to avoid it. What if we asked with interest, ‘how is this serving my child?’
My daughter was fifteen, taller than me, and curled-up in my lap crying night after night for an entire school term. Her ‘friends’ were treating her badly and her heart was slowly breaking from their treatment. My kids are different, so unfortunately this wasn’t the first time we had faced this situation and it wouldn’t be the last.
We did not try and solve this for her. We did not intervene. We also did not abandon her and ‘wish her luck.’ We were there with her, every step of the way, listening, guiding, comforting, loving, encouraging, and most of all, reminding her of her core strength and reflecting back to her that we knew that she could handle it. This was torture to witness, and it took its toll on our hearts. However, it carved out a magnificent human who learned from a very tender age that self should not be sacrificed for anyone because the pain of that long term, was far greater than the pain of being rejected short term. A life lesson which was difficult to learn but has sent her into her adulthood with an unshakable sense of self, along with the deep inner confidence that accompanies that.
Love is not meant to be restricted to when the situation is easy, and we as parents must embrace that consequences are essential for the growth of our child. True discipline, from a heart-centered space, is an act of love.
The questions that parents and children need to ask themselves when setting boundaries and guidelines should be.
Do we want to be right, or do we want to make progress?
Does this boundary support growth or compliance?
Are we making this decision because we do not want to be judged?
Are we making this decision because it is too painful to watch our children go through something tough? If it is, I totally understand! It is excruciating, BUT it can allow our children to develop some vital skills, while safely under our wings, ready for life when they eventually leave us.
Understanding that each child is on their own personal journey leading to their unique perspective – despite how unreasonable we deem it to be – is key to meeting on common ground. We must learn to love through the pain, frustration, anger, or betrayal. We must practice deep self-reflection and radical empathy to avoid feeling like we need control.
Where to draw the line in protecting children:
Our children not only need to fail, but we need to be open as parents and caregivers to fail in front of them.
One of our children was a perfectionist, and this was holding him back from growth. I became acutely aware that we never modeled ‘failure’ to him. We were experiencing plenty of plot twists, but we had not shared these situations with our children. We had developed a habit of pivoting quietly and moving on stronger.
We began actively creating opportunities around the dinner table to discuss how we had failed, what the experience had taught us, and how we found a new way forward. This was so vital to our son’s self-acceptance, his confidence, and his growth.
How we show up as parents directly impacts our children’s inner dialogue and belief in self. It comes down to meeting your child’s needs in every difficult situation and learning to see the blessing in every parenting experience. We need to connect to our innermost intuition as parents to find the right way forward for each unique child we have been gifted.
They need to know that we believe in them, so we show up believing in them. When they are climbing an adventure trail way up high we can choose how to support them. We can either say, ‘Be careful! Don’t fall!’ or we can yell with a smile, “Hold on tight, this is going to be awesome!’
The long term benefits.
The question that we need to be asking ourselves whether to allow our kids to struggle is, ‘Will this experience benefit my child long term?’ I have been gifted five neuro-diverse souls as my children and they have taught me so much.
They are exceptional humans (yes, I am unapologetically biased), however, the world has not always been ready for them. There have been times when I have counter-intuitively pushed them into situations like applying for jobs or joining clubs that they have found incredibly uncomfortable.
All I wanted to do was tuck them safely back into my womb so I could protect them, but I knew they deserved better. I look at them now and not only am I grateful that I had the courage to do what was right (not easy) for them, they are grateful to me for doing it too.
What a gift that is.
Throughout all of this, as parents, we need to be kind to ourselves. As we navigate through this time of raising exquisite humans, know that we will make mistakes. We will sometimes miss the mark. All we can do is to keep showing up and trying our best. And that is enough.