Avoiding the Helpfulness Trap: Why Parents Shouldn’t Help Their Kids Too Much


One of the hardest things about parenting is avoiding the Helpfulness Trap: the temptingly wrong idea that parents should assist their kids through their struggles: i.e. speedily intervening when they show frustration, smoothing over rough patches.

While there’s lots of solid thinking on the problems with parental over-helpfulness (my favorite is Blessings of the Skinned Knee, by Wendy Mogel), I’ve never seen the case made quite so clearly as in this short letter from an Alameda, California, mom named Kate Bassford Baker, who posted it on the Alameda Patch. (You can read the whole thing here.)

Dear Other Parents At The Park:

Please do not lift my daughters to the top of the ladder, especially after you’ve just heard me tell them I wasn’t going to do it for them and encourage them to try it themselves.

I am not sitting here, 15 whole feet away from my kids, because I am too lazy to get up. I am sitting here because I didn’t bring them to the park so they could learn how to manipulate others into doing the hard work for them. I brought them here so they could learn to do it themselves.

They’re not here to be at the top of the ladder; they are here to learn to climb. If they can’t do it on their own, they will survive the disappointment. What’s more, they will have a goal and the incentive to work to achieve it. It is not my job — and it is certainly not yours — to prevent my children from feeling frustration, fear, or discomfort. If I do, I have robbed them of the opportunity to learn that those things are not the end of the world, and can be overcome or used to their advantage.

To that, I’d add the fact that times of struggle and failure are precisely when the most learning occurs — the “sweet spot,” as psychologists call it, when kids go to the edge of their ability and a little beyond. What looks like struggle and failure is, in fact, an act of construction — the making and honing of new connections in their brain.

All of which means that leaving kids alone has three benefits: 1) they develop emotional resilience; 2) they build skills; 3) you get more free time. In scientific literature, I believe that’s referred to as a win-win-win.

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18 Responses to “Avoiding the Helpfulness Trap: Why Parents Shouldn’t Help Their Kids Too Much”

  1. Richard says:

    Great piece. The challenge i find with this is for school work, where there is concern with letting them struggle for too long, may see them fall too far behind. Has anyone else experienced that and do you have any advice.

  2. Sara says:

    Thanks for writing about these topics. I’ve really enjoyed your blog. As a new parent, my son is 10 months old, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I want him to know how to fail. It’s never comfortable, but I think it’s an important life skill. My struggle right now is that I want to make sure I help him learn this skill in a manner that coincides with his cognitive abilities at any given point in development. Intuitively, letting a baby get overly frustrated doesn’t seem right to me, but I’d like to have something more substantive to make these decisions on. Do you have any advice on resources that would tell me what he’s cognitively capable of as he grows? Thanks in advance.

  3. Kevin says:

    Such a great point. Not having kids of my own, I find it difficult to relate to parent’s desire to prevent their kids from enduring struggle…And with all of the insight from Talent Code, Mindset, etc. it becomes alarmingly evident how important it is for kids to not just endure, but to seek out.
    Equally difficult is trying to convince parents of this need. I know our ego gets in the way, but man is it frustrating to see parents do things that literally inhibit the development of their children. But hey, I guess when I encounter parents who I’m trying to educate about these things, and they are reluctant to listen, then I’m in my own “sweet spot” of communication improvement….

  4. Kevin Taylor says:

    Wonderful essay. But could be misconstrued by narcissist parents.

    It takes acute parental (or teacher) vision to know the difference between assisting a child in the accomplishment of a task and assisting the child in the child’s accomplishment of a task. The mom had to bring the kids to the park (and she’s attentive). That may be overlooked but is the critical element, here.

    Your essay can be construed by some parents as an excuse for abandonment, which is one of the herbicides of motivation. How to productively involve oneself in the child’s learning requires deep reflection all along the way.

  5. Alex says:

    “I am sitting here because I didn’t bring them to the park so they could learn how to manipulate others into doing the hard work for them.”

    That would be much more usefull :D.

    Like your example of not being able to tie your shoes but learning the skill of persuading other people into doing it for you as a compensation.

  6. Great article. As far aas Sara’s concerns about her 10 month old son, I would refer to some great literature distributed by the Rudolf Steiner foundation for Waldorf Education. They seemed to be very dialed in to when to “help” a child. Also good information as to what is age-appropriate responsibility. Believe me, after raising two children myself, this was my most difficult challenge. There is a book called “Lifeways” by Hawthorne Press that supplements a course given by that same name.

  7. Renee says:

    We (parents) continue to learn through our children. Our first born finally told us (16 years old then) that we need to allow us to let him fail. Imagine allowing your child to fail!

  8. djcoyle says:

    Hey Sara, thanks for your comment and kind words. Are you familiar with “The Scientist in the Crib”? I think it’s by Alison Gopnik; she’s one of the best thinkers/writers on this area. It’s kind of amazing how much is going on up there, between those tiny, cute ears! Best, Dan

  9. djcoyle says:

    Great point, Kevin — so much here is in the gray areas, and in the way certain messages are delivered, isn’t it? I hope nobody construes this stuff as a rationale for abandonment!

  10. Walter says:

    I have a 13 year old that does the same thing when it comes to homework. He sits at the table and every question he does he seems to have a question for me. However he’s looking for answers from me, sometimes clue. I tell him to do his best and then together we will take it up. I always tell him im not doing the work for him nor am i going to lead him in the right direction. He needs to learn to think on his own, make his own mistakes and then i can correct them or “help” him out. Kids are very bright, it’s easier for them to talk an adult into doing it for them or doing most of the work rather than to do it themselves!

  11. Bob Steele says:

    Please remember this when your child is a part of youth activities, especially, sport. Every coach is trying to provide “attention with a higher level of expectation”. They must fail and then try, try, try to make the correction in order to learn, no matter what the activity or skill. A former athlete’s children wanted him to watch practice. He told them to find out from the coach what they were going to learn. He then said, “I’ll stay as long as you learn. If you don’t do what he wants, I’m leaving.” The boys listened and learned.

  12. Hi Bob Steele, great to see that swimming is well represented on the viewer list 🙂

    Coaching-wise and parenting-wise I always followed the approach of the wise ones; ‘I’m not there to stop them falling down, I’m there to teach them to get up.’

  13. … and a follow-up thought: the teacher/mentor who taught me the most NEVER answered one of my questions! He always pointed me, Socratically, in the direction where I could discover the answer for myself.

  14. Paul Miller says:

    You wouldn’t hire a personal trainer to get you fitter and then expect them to lift the weights and run on the treadmill for you aswell, would you?

  15. TIm Clark says:

    Reminds me of Brene Brown’s statement: ” Our kids are hard wired for struggle.”

  16. gpo613 says:

    My daughter is finishing her 6th year of swimming. Early on she was terrible. She was behind her peers a ton. She could easily see it at swim meets when she was slower than others. She could have given up. We only have one rule when it comes to sports, you have to finish any season you start. Eventually she started to get better and better. The only thing we really did for her was get her on a better team with better coaching. When she did change teams she was even further down the ladder, but she listened to the coaches and worked hard and eventually got better. She closed the gap on her peers a ton. She did 99% of it on her own without much help from us parents. Today she is such a stronger person. She learned many life lessons during that time. It has been great to see her transformation especially when she took ownership of the process. The most important factor for kids doing any sport or activity is simply do they love to play that sport. If they do everything else will take of itself.

  17. Will says:

    Daniel, when is [parental] intervention a good thing? What is the right time to step in?

    In Outliers, Gladwell discusses accumulative advantage in the context of parenting styles. He makes the point that “concerted cultivation” is what good parents do. Parents who think that the kids can sort of raise themselves end up with kids who aren’t as able to make the best use of their environment (located approximately at page 104).

    You use the term “speedily intervening” to describe the “helpfulness trap.” I agree with the whole thing about struggle being a good thing. But when does struggle become too much? Do we just assume that the kid will ask for help when overwhelmed? I even think that the ability to ask for help is a valuable ability.

    I suppose general my standpoint is:
    Don’t give fish to kids but definitely teach them how to fish.

  18. djcoyle says:

    Hey Will, Thanks for sharing that. I like your line about fish. To try to answer your question: I think it’s incredibly hard to come up with hard-and-fast rules that apply in every situation. Kids are different. You don’t want to put anyone in a situation where they’re banging their head against a wall for no reason. That said, I think 1) it helps as a parent to be alert to the value of time spent struggling at the edge of ability; 2) celebrating that struggle is worthwhile, and creates an appetite for it; 3) when a kid gets into the the “flailing zone” where it’s unproductive, quitting is a beautiful thing.
    Funny, I just saw this piece in the Atlantic that speaks to this question as well: http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2013/01/why-parents-need-to-let-their-children-fail/272603/
    Thanks, D

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