There has been a lot of talk in the press lately about a lack of resilience in college students—that is, their inability to solve their own problems, make responsible decisions, and effectively handle stress. While it is important to understand the lack of maturity and resilience in college students, how do we shift this conversation to talk of actually building resilience in children so they will be prepared for life when they leave home?
As an author, counselor, and college professor, but most importantly, as a parent of a 10 year-old daughter and 12 year-old son, I have put a lot of thought into this issue. I am painfully aware that I am making parenting decisions today that will either contribute to or take away from my kids’ ability to successfully cope with life in the future. Just this morning I frantically called my husband while he was driving our kids to school, asking him to sign some of my daughter’s homework papers that are due today (she had forgotten to give them to us to sign the night before). Somehow he signed the packet while he was driving and still got the kids to school by 7:45AM, no small feat for our household!
This is a minor example but it demonstrates how seemingly small “rescues” by parents can accumulate into a pattern of irresponsibility in their children. Today I rescued my daughter from all potential negative consequences (having to sit out from recess for 10 minutes because she forgot to have us sign the papers), thereby ensuring that she will be even less likely to take responsibility for her assignments in the future. I realize this is a very minor issue today. However, if I do this type of rescuing repeatedly, she will be less equipped to take responsibility for herself in her life even after she leaves home. So why would I do this? What drives this type of parenting behavior that seems like compassionate parenting at the time but actually serves to negatively impact our children’s future resilience?
I believe this part of this tendency stems from a trend in our culture: While all of us want to keep our children safe and happy, many of today’s parents are taking what is termed a Lawnmower Parenting approach; we don’t want our children to ever struggle, to ever feel uncomfortable, to ever be disappointed, to or experience any feelings of failure, so we “mow down” all obstacles to keep our children from encountering any problems. We spend a great deal of energy in saving our children from any kind of pain—physical or emotional—even if our children could (and should) handle the situation themselves. We make the way a little too tidy, too smooth. We jump in too quickly, preventing them from having to struggle or fail.
At the same time parents are busy rescuing, it is interesting to see that today’s parents also say they want their kids to grow up to be responsible. In a recent Pew Research Center report, 94% of parents named responsibility as the most important quality they want to teach their kids. There is a real disconnect here. The problem is that if we do everything for our children to ensure that they never struggle or fail, we are not providing them with the skills to think independently, work their way through a problem, or take responsibility for their actions. And as the current spotlight on college students reveals, we need to do a better job of preparing them for the real world.
Not only does rescuing prevent the development of responsibility, it contributes to a lack of confidence and sense of competence in our children. When I rush in and do something for my children like I did this morning, then I am in essence saying, “You don’t have what it takes to do this on your own. Because of your incompetence, I have to do it for you”. If my child believes she is incompetent, how will she ever learn to believe in herself and her abilities? If a son or daughter grows up with the attitude: “If my parents don’t think I can handle this problem, then I must not be able to handle much of anything,” it is understandable that this child won’t feel empowered to solve his or her own problems in the future[i]. It is a sobering thought to realize that when I bend over backwards to rescue my kids from a problem, I am actually contributing to their self-doubt and lack of confidence. In reality, this is the opposite of what I want for them.
I know that making a shift away from lawnmower parenting feels risky. Allowing our children to experience small but negative consequences now in order to build their resilience for the future isn’t easy and it doesn’t make us popular with our kids (at least in the short run). I know it is extremely frustrating to watch your children struggle and fail when you could just step in and solve the problem for them (or just make it go away altogether). In my life, I really, really do want to make the call (like I did this morning), take the forgotten band instrument to school, resolve the dispute with a teacher or friend, correct the mistakes in the essay, or clean up the messy room. I so want to rescue them from discomfort and hurt feelings and embarrassment. And even though I rescued her this morning, I would really rather have my daughter sit out from recess today than make an irresponsible and possibly life-altering decision when she is older and living on her own. The lessons are best learned now when she still has her parents to support her as she reflects on what she is learning as she occasionally stumbles, falls, and has to pick herself up again.
Overall, we need to take a deep breath and step back as we let our children experience the consequences of their actions instead of removing the consequences for them (e.g., “You forget your homework, you receive a zero for the assignment” versus “It’s okay--I will rush it to school for you”). The bottom line is this: In all of our parenting decisions, we need to consider the answer to this question: Will this action I am about to take lead my child towards increased independence, competence, confidence, and future resilience, or will it take away from it?[ii] When we look to the results of too much "lawnmowering" in college students, it can certainly make it easier to resist the urge to rescue our children today. Let’s put our lawnmowers away in favor of building our children’s future resilience.
For more, see Laura Choate’s book, Swimming Upstream: Parenting Girls for Resilience in a Toxic Culture, Oxford University Press, is available from Oxford University Press.
[i] Homayoun, A. (2013). The myth of the perfect girl: Helping our daughters find authentic success and happiness in school and life. New York, NY: Penguin Group.
[ii] Allen, J. & Allen, C.W. (2009). Escaping the endless adolescence. New York, NY: Ballentine Books.