Parenting is the hardest job there is. And who are our biggest critics? Yep, other parents. It is so difficult to plot a parenting course and navigate that course without feeling judged or insecure about it at some point. Who doesn’t remember having a well-planned outing with a toddler and cringing as that plan falls apart and you wonder how your trip to the park devolved into the epic meltdown you are witnessing – along with the critique of every other parent present (whose children seem to be behaving perfectly!).
Very few enter parenthood saying “well, we’ll just see how this goes, okay?” We have some sort of foundation for the type of parent that we’d like to be and the type of child that we’d like to raise. It seems it used to be strict versus laid back, but now nearly every parenting style has a clever label, and a judgment that goes with it. It’s easy for parents to see a story about free-range parents and not want to be associated with the negativity that seems to follow that method. More often, I hear people react to a seemingly over-protective parent by calling them a helicopter parent – obviously not a compliment.
I will admit that I lean toward what some might call helicoptering, though I prefer the phrase ‘highly managed child.’ When my daughter was a preschooler, we lived in a cul-de-sac, and she had one of those motorized mini Barbie Jeeps. I followed her around while she drove, and had funny, funny neighbors ask me “why did you even bother to buy a house in a cul-de-sac?” Yes, I expected and accepted that kind of ribbing. The truth was that there were many teenaged drivers there, and the Jeep stood, what, two feet tall? Who could see that backing out of a driveway? Okay, I feel like I’m losing you to your rolling eyes, so we’ll move on.
As my daughter began middle school, the theme of ‘they need to do it for themselves’ emerged or gained strength. Teachers proclaimed at the beginning of the year that they expected the students to be in charge of handling their own problems with assignments, teachers, and other issues that arise. That’s a great concept, and I realize it’s important. But I wondered, have these kids been taught how to do this? Self-advocacy doesn’t just materialize because they are in middle school, has the school spent any time explaining what this looks like? Have I?
This got me thinking – yes, kids do need to begin to advocate for themselves. And yes, when kids have problems with their friends and peers they need to work it out for themselves. But for many, they have not been adequately prepared to do so. It makes sense that in the hopes of raising a self-sufficient adult, we say “you need to handle this yourself.” But we miss the most important part of this, where we ask ourselves “how have I taught her how to handle this?” If we’re honest with ourselves, even the best of parents have often neglected to teach a child how to ask for what she needs, state her feelings and ask about those of others, negotiate, ask questions, resolve conflict, and communicate.
Think of anyone with siblings who are close in age. When they begin to fight over toys or bicker with each other, how often have you heard the parent (or been the parent) say “you guys work this out yourselves!” Now I’m treading carefully here because, again, this happens to even the best-intentioned parents. Does this parent put out this directive because they have reviewed the developmental abilities that their children possess along with the age-appropriate skills that the parent has taught these children? Or is it possible that the parent cannot deal with any more crimes against Legos; and even though they legitimately feel that the kids need to be able to solve their own problems, this is more of an unfounded wish than an aptitude-driven activity.
Because my book and my focus are on tween girls, my attention shifts to how this applies to them. As I mentioned, many middle schools require that students advocate for themselves. It’s important to sit down and discuss what this looks like for your child. Teach them how to find out how teachers like to be approached – e-mails, before or after class, office hours? Teach them how to state their situation and ask relevant questions and ask for what they need or hope to get. And most importantly, teach them how to communicate with you to support them during this transition. We’re not flipping a switch here, it’s a process.
As for tween girls being asked to work out friend issues by themselves? Again, I really don’t want the focus here to be whether or not kids are too coddled or too unsupervised. I want to assert that if a tween girl is expected to work out issues with her friends by herself, we should be confident that they have the skills to do so. (Spoiler alert: if parents haven’t said much more than “don’t take that crap from her,” she doesn’t have the skills.)
All tween girls are different, some are still very open about what’s going on in their lives. But many are beginning to roll their eyes, sport attitudes, and clam up because they want to rely more on friends than on parents. Sometimes it’s easier to tell them they need to be nice to others and to remind them to not let others take advantage or bully them than to face the rejection of our attempts to offer advice or (gasp) suggest that we might understand what they’re going through.
If you have a daughter who isn’t eager to make her own decisions and relies heavily on you to tell her what to do, perhaps consider asking her what she thinks she should do and turn it into more of a discussion than an advice column (see, I can loosen up the ‘highly managed child’ reigns). It is a good thing to begin to encourage conflict resolution skills, but that’s the thing – they are skills, they don’t just appear. Find examples, stories, talking points, and books (ahem, Between Baby Dolls and Boyfriends perhaps?) to teach these skills!
If you have a daughter who apparently has it all figured out and is no longer in need of your services, find a way to check in with her. Usually, finding positive attributes and asking questions is a good way to get her talking. Even finding the smallest behavior to reinforce will increase the likelihood that she will give you a bigger peek into her world and perhaps even share some stories with you. “That was awesome that when Abby and Bella were talking badly about Sarah, you changed the subject. Was that hard to do?” If she sees that you like who she is and what she’s doing, and are interested in her social scene without harsh and instant commentary, she will continue to open up to you. (Caution: as girls get older, there is an invisible line we all apparently cross from interested parent to dim-witted intruder. This line changes daily, but you will know when you’ve crossed with two words – “GEEZ MOMMM!”)
Whether with some finesse or completely clumsily, most kids figure out how to navigate their world. But it’s not fair to think that new skills appear yearly like birthdays. We do kids a disservice when we focus more on the label we want or don’t want than on what their needs are at any given stage. So if you don’t want to be a helicopter parent, great – but what is the result you are looking for? And independent kid? Make sure that you focus on the skills that an independent kid needs and how you will make sure they are equipped with those skills rather than just shaking off the traits of the label you wish to avoid.