Knowing when to let go

“He climbed up there, he’ll get down”, the mother shouted from the bottom of the stairs in the Children’s Hospital. She turned back to her friend and the member of the hospital staff in the stairs and I looked at each other. I offered the child my finger to help him down, but he gave me a terrified look so I just lingered around to catch him in case he fell. The stairs were way too high for a child his age, made of white stone, hard and edgy. The little boy had huge curls surrounding his face and dark brown eyes, conveying no trust in this world. When he had landed safely I continued up the stairs. The staff member rolled her eyes: “Interesting parenting you see around here sometimes”. The scene made me depressed for the rest of the morning.

Teaching a child to learn the consequences of its actions is a core task in parenting. It is a fine line parents need to walk – when to support individuation and let the child experience the consequences of their choices and when to shield them from their own immaturity. It takes sensitivity, afterthought, and a lot of trial and error to know when to let go, when the child is ready to understand the concept of consequences.

Logical consequences is a specific strategy in the Positive Parenting Program, Triple P, but several parenting programs have similar tools. Its purpose is to help children experience consequences of their behaviour in a predictable way. So if two children fight over a toy or device despite the parents asking them to start sharing instead or the toy will go away, the object indeed goes away for five minutes. Logical consequences make sense to the child and are closely related in time to the inadequate behaviour, helping the child make the link. A logical consequence can also be shorter time for play because of time spent whining instead of getting ready or not being able to go shopping with a friend because of missed homework that has to be done.

A logical consequence for the little boy in the stairs for not listening should have been to sit in the pram. In fact, given that he was only about 18 months the best choice would probably have been to distract him with something else or why not walk with him a couple of times, telling him that mommy will be busy later on and he can be a good boy playing with some toys after the walks in the stairs. There was no logic to the consequence of possibly letting him fall.

At times, however, children will and should fall. A book that provoked a lot of debate in Sweden problematized the consequences of what was termed “curling parenting”, a Swedish version of alleged overprotective parenting where the path is cleared for children, as the ice is swept clean in the sport of Curling by the Sweepers for the granite stone to glide as smoothly as possible. The authors Carl Lindgren and Frank Lindblad argued that in parents’ efforts to protect their offspring from injuries and negative experiences, the children were left without resilience for the normal challenges of life.

Given the links between overprotective parenting and fearfulness and anxiety in children (Rapee, 2009), they seem to have a point. Of course children who are temperamentally inhibited, less sociable and more fearful of new situations, might elicit this type of parenting when they are toddlers. So the causal pathway could go either way, but being overprotective certainly does not improve these children’s bravery or resilience.

To be honest, I tend to be pretty protective of the children. Helmets, sunscreen, and life vests are non-negotiable and they are all tired of hearing me talk about never going anywhere with strangers. But I like to exercise “controlled risk”, as in letting them walk on their own to the store and back, secretly checking on them or biking behind the bus when they are riding it on their own for the first time to school. I hate letting them go to camp or downtown with friends, but I do, because I figure that is part of being a good parent. And because my husband tells me not to be such a mother hen…

But I have to stop myself from making up all kinds of terrible scenarios in my head and something in me will not settle until the kids are all back and sound asleep in their beds so I can peep in and listen to their even breathing. That will, of course not be like that forever, because we have to let go of our children: the question is only  when and how.

4 thoughts on “Knowing when to let go

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