I went to the playground yesterday, and it was a beautiful day where we live in northern New Jersey. I took my kids bike riding and to the playground. And at the playground you get to hear some amazing conversations. One of the conversations I heard was between a mother and her three- or four-year-old daughter who brought two dolls with her to the playground. We’ll call the little girl, Susie. The mother said to Susie, “Susie, you need to give me Shimmer and Shine, because you’re going to lose them, and if you lose them then you’re going to be sad and I’m going to be sad.” When I heard that, I thought, hmmmm.
The mother, in my opinion, is trying to protect her daughter from sadness. And that actually made me sad! And then I thought, Why is this parent trying to protect her child from feeling sad? From feeling sad about losing these two dolls, Shimmer and Shine. And I thought about how this would have been a great opportunity if the parent had just allowed the child to potentially lose the dolls, right? We often don’t allow our kids to fail, because of fears of our own. What would happen if my child became sad? Guess what—we teach them how to handle being sad. It’s a feeling, not good, not bad, just a feeling that we all feel and should learn to sit with. That’s a great opportunity. If the child lost the two little dolls, the parent could have used that opportunity to teach her daughter responsibility, what happens when you bring your toys to the playground. Her daughter would have also been able to experience sadness, instead of her mothering protecting her from it.
This is a chance to teach your child what to do when they’re sad. OK, so you’re sad, tell me about it. How does that feel? Why does it feel this way or that way? This is a chance to teach our children that feelings come and go, they are not good or bad, they just are. This is also a chance to help our children find healthy ways of riding these waves of emotions. It’s an opportunity for both child and parent to grow and connect.
Getting the Boot
The other conversation I heard involved a dad holding his little boy, who was wearing rain boots. We’ll call the boy William. There were a few of us sitting on a bench, and all of a sudden, one of William’s rain boots fell off. And three adults—not one, not two, but three, said, “Oh William!” And to the dad, “He dropped his boot!”
I’m thinking, There goes another opportunity! The other adults could have removed themselves from the situation and just allowed William to figure that out on his own. Don’t you think once the dad put him down, and little William had run off to play, he would have realized, Oh, I’m missing my rainboot!
As adults, we always try to insert ourselves. We always try to fix the problem, find a solution, or what some people call “lawnmower parenting”, where we try to smooth the surface so our kids don’t fail. By doing that in itself, and not allowing our kids to practice failure, we actually fail them. It’s important for them to feel competency, Oh, I can do this; I can make decisions for myself. There’s that autonomy—for the child—of saying, I get to decide what happens. I get to experience my feelings, the way I should feel them. I can navigate a solution to a challenge.
The Root of this Issue
I spent some time this weekend reading Out of Control by Dr. Shefali Tsabary. She’s my favorite. And there were two lines, on pages 32 and 33, that kind of explain what I’m talking about. One of the things she says here is, “If a parent either unloads their own anxieties on their children, or protects them from their anxieties, they rob their children of the ability to discover their inherent resilience.”
These parents didn’t do a any major harm, but yeah, they sort of did rob their children of their inherent resilience, to get back on their feet: to find the boot that they had just dropped, to deal with the consequences if that little girl had lost her dolls, Shimmer and Shine.
On the next page, it says, “The reason Nicole learned in one day what her mother had been unable to teach her over a period of weeks, is that the mother took herself out of the equation, which allowed the natural consequence to emerge. And there’s no better teacher.”
A lot of parents come to me asking me about consequences and discipline, and these are situations where, while there wasn’t any real discipline happening, there was natural consequence. If we allow for the natural consequence unfold, we can be there to support our child as they get back up. Think of it as a gift, to allow your child to use their skills to handle the situation. These are the skills of responsibility, autonomy, agency, self-discipline, and self-reliance.
So just for you, the next time you’re interacting with your child, see if you can take that pause, and allow your child to experience the situation and deal with the consequences, without trying to run in and fix it. Be mindful of your own anxiety that might be triggered as you take part in the role of the observer.