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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