How To Do Life

Fresh ideas about career and personal issues

Parenting: Part III

After school: Great parenting without helicopter parenting

Part I discussed how to decide which battles to pick and how to win without you or your child incurring collateral damage.

Part II described a time-effective way to help ensure your child gets a good education.

Here we turn to life outside of school.

How much freedom to give your child

Some kids can, at any early age, handle lots of freedom while others need be kept on a short leash. In my case, it was literally so. When I was three, if my mom turned away for a moment, I’d be gone. Once I wandered onto a New York City subway, after which she wouldn’t leave the apartment without putting me on a leash, literally.

But how about your child? Of course, in the end, it’s a judgment call based on your risk-tolerance and how well your child would handle being off the leash. Of course, here, I’m not just talking about a literal leash but whether, for example, to allow your child to not to do homework and suffer the consequences or to stand over him until it’s done? Allow her to spend the night at her friend’s house? Allow him to climb a tree? Rather than a visceral fear-based “No!” based on overprotectiveness, try to respond based on a clear-eyed assessment of risk/benefit.

I do think that some parents are overprotective, for example, not allowing an active child to climb trees. Yes, a child very occasionally breaks a limb falling off a tree but the probability of that is much lower than that the overprotected child ends up lacking sufficient self-efficacy and denied enough opportunity to realize that failure--if not a necessary prerequisite to success--is almost always survivable. Even broken bones heal. The child experiencing, early and often, that the parent doesn’t trust him to negotiate the world, is far less likely to heal.

How strictly should you enforce rules?  Again, of course, nuance must prevail. It depends on the rule and on how likely your child will, if given an inch, insist on a mile. Besides, even if you know that being inconsistent is wrong, we’re human. So if the rule is “30 minutes of TV a night” and you catch Junior watching an hour’s worth of vapidity, the world will not end. Good parenting doesn’t require perfection. Good is good enough.  

Worse though is when one parent tends to be the enforcer while the other usually lets the child slide. That sets the stage for the kid playing-off one parent against the other, to no one’s benefit. United front, parents!

After-school activities. I’m part of the chorus that complains about parents overscheduling their kids. I’ll admit that my view is colored by my personal experience: As a child, I had a lot of unscheduled time and some of my fondest memories are of, for example, in winter, staring at the snowflakes drift onto the window, and in summer, lying on the grass watching the clouds go by, and I didn’t turn out too terribly.

But what to say no to: Little League? Piano lessons? Karate? Art classes? Children’s theatre?

I deeply believe in building on strengths rather than remediating weaknesses. So if my child were a klutz and not interested in sports, adios soccer. If my preschooler loved to wear a tutu while bouncing around to the Sesame Street song, we’d try ballet. But if she turned out to hate it or be bad at it, I’d pretty quickly ask her if she wanted to switch to gymnastics. Same with music lessons. I was a professional wedding and bar-mitzvah pianist and got to know many others—For all of us, playing, including by ear, came almost effortlessly. It hurts me to see untalented kids forced to try, without success, to translate sheet music’s squiggles into good-sounding music. It actually strikes me as a bit sadistic—not just to the kid but to the family members that have to endure the cacophony. A children’s theatre program is often an excellent substitute.

Part IV, which will be posted tomorrow will discuss friends, sex, and drugs.

Marty Nemko was named “The Bay Area’s Best Career Coach” by the San Francisco Bay Guardian and he enjoys a 96 percent client-satisfaction rate. In addition to the articles here on, many more of Marty Nemko's writings are archived on Of his seven books, the most relevant to readers of this blog is How to Do Life: What They Didn’t Teach You in School. Marty Nemko's  bio is on Wikipedia.

Marty Nemko is a career and personal coach based in Oakland, Ca. and the author of 7 books. 

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