Monday, June 3, 2013

Experience coaches vs. helicopter parenting

Last week’s Wall Street Journal featured this story on parents’ serving as “exposure coaches” for their children who suffer from anxiety.

Basically, therapists work with kids who suffer from anxiety to expose them in a controlled way to the very thing that concerns them. Parents are enlisted in the battle and serve as exposure coaches to help their kids grow accustomed to those things that produce anxiety.

As I read this article, I couldn’t help but think about helicopter parents and how their role seems to be the exact opposite.

Helicopter parents are those who seem to want to make everything right for their kids. Exposure coaches have the goal of making their kids right for what life throws at them. Put me down for #2, please.

When I was a kid, if I complained to my mom about something one of my friends did, her standard response was (and I can see her standing at the stove, stirring whatever was in the pot for dinner as she said it), “You’ve got to fight your own battles.”

Who knew that response would be one of the best gifts she ever gave me.

I was the youngest of four kids and I had awesome siblings who treated me well. I tell my own kids I don’t remember being picked on by my siblings (and I don’t). But I also remember growing up reasonably confident that I could do what I set my mind to. It wasn’t that I always succeeded. And it certainly wasn’t that my parents intervened on my behalf; if they ever did, I didn’t know about it. In fact, I’m sure my folks from time to time wondered how I would do some things I set out to do. But they let me do it.

I remember some school assignments that were awesome. And some were awful. And I got the grades for both efforts. I remember succeeding in some social circumstances and failing in others. Some successes and failures I shared with my parents and some I didn’t.

If I asked for help, I got it. If I didn’t ask for help, I got space.

It was a formula that worked for me growing up.

Now I know that the kids in the WSJ article suffer from significant anxiety, and there are lots of reasons for anxiety, most beyond the influence of helicopter parenting. But at the same time I have to wonder if training parents as exposure coaches is one way we can correct misguided efforts of helicopter parents.

Helicopter parents – those who intervene at every step to ensure their children have the best experience – have failed to learn that what we think is helpful is not always helpful. While it may be helpful to offer to call and make a doctor’s appointment for a spouse who has too much to do, it may not be helpful to do that for a teenage child who needs to learn to call and make her own appointments. While it may seem helpful to offer to type a paper for an overburdened student, it may be more helpful for that student to learn to budget his time better next time – a lesson he might best learn by stumbling once along the way.

When we teach our youth about agency and accountability, we typically say that we can choose how we act, but we don’t get to choose the consequences. That is, we take the consequences that come with the choices we make. A helicopter parent who obscures the consequences does no good for the child.

A friend regularly repeats this mantra: Never do for a child what he can or should be able to do for himself. Good advice. In fact, Great Advice!

In recovery circles, families with addicted loved ones learn a lot about enabling a person’s addictions – taking steps to soften the consequences of the addiction. That enabling might be as benign as regular reminders to wake up on time for work or nagging a person to get certain things done. But it can be as serious as covering up an addict’s or an alcoholic’s misdeeds to avoid legal or other troubles. Those enabling behaviors are often symptomatic of a co-dependent person, one who depends on others for his or her own happiness.

But that enabling behavior is common in our society, not just among families with addiction. It’s also deeply rooted in helicopter parents whose happiness is dependent upon the success of their children.

In the end, our goal as parents is to have kids who can grow up and be healthy, happy and successful without us. Helping our children toward that healthy independence requires that they learn skills on their own, that they learn to fight their own battles, that they learn to do the things that they should do for themselves.

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