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How to Advise and Help Your Kids Without Driving Them Crazy

Guidelines for really helping, not pestering, your kids.

We love our kids. We want to protect them. We want the best for them. We don't want them to make the same mistakes we made. We have walked this planet longer than they have and know some things that they don't know. And so we offer our kids advice and help that they didn't ask for and don't want, and they reject it or ignore it. And then what was a positive impulse to help becomes a confrontation.

In some instances, our impulse to help leads us to become downright pests to our children. We tag metaphorically (and sometimes literally) after them, trying to direct them at every junction in the road and trying to prevent or at least cushion their every fall.

Some children, sadly, succumb; they stop trying to think for themselves and begin to look to adults to direct their every move and solve their every problem. But most children, happily, resist. They refuse the role of puppet. They would rather make mistakes and suffer the consequences than do just what they are told.

Mother Nature knows that we can't possibly protect our children from all the pitfalls and dangers the world provides. We can't follow them around all of their lives, and we can't predict where all of the bumps and pits will lie. The road keeps changing, so no matter how long we have walked it, we don't really know it. Children must learn to protect themselves, and to do so they must experience again and again the processes of making their own decisions, making and recovering from their own mistakes, and confronting and dealing with all sorts of dangers and disappointments. Therefore, Mother Nature—or, less poetically, the process of natural selection—designed our children to resist our attempts to control them. The "terrible twos" are no accident, nor are children's continuing self-assertions following age two.

Mother Nature has walked this planet longer than any of us and has a better plan for children's development than you, I or any child psychologist could possibly devise. We had better listen to her. The plan is implanted in our children's instincts, and we learn it by watching and listening to our children, not by fighting with them.

In my last post, I wrote about the natural tendency that most of us have to dislike unsolicited advice, maybe especially when it comes from family members or others who love us and whom we love. We dislike such advice because it comes dangerously close to attempts at control. All of us, throughout life, want to maintain our autonomy; we resist control from others. When we ask for advice, we are still in control. In fact, our asking for advice is part of our means of rational self-control. But when others give us advice that we didn't ask for, it strikes us that they are trying to control us; and if we feel that we must follow the advice—perhaps because we are afraid of offending the advisor or because we don't want to argue with that person—then we really are being controlled. Our children are just like us in this regard.

The all-time superstars in the ability to refrain from giving unsolicited advice, apparently, were hunter-gatherers (see my posts of August 2, 2008, July 2, 2009, and July 9, 2009; and the published article on hunter-gatherers that is available as a PDF on the biography page for this blog). The hunting and gathering way of life required an extraordinarily high degree of individual autonomy and initiative coupled with an extraordinarily high degree of cooperation and sharing. To achieve that mix, hunter-gatherers everywhere, it seems, independently developed a style of parenting in which even very young children were allowed to make their own decisions and learn from their own experiences. Our world today is in many ways different from that of hunter-gatherers, and I doubt if any of us could achieve the high level of trustful parenting that they achieved, but we can certainly move closer to that ideal.

Here, for your consideration, is a set of guidelines for being helpful to your children without being too helpful and for avoiding the tendency to give them advice that they don't want or need.

1. When your child asks for help or advice, give only what was asked for.

If your child asks you to tie a particular hard-to-tie knot for a project she is working on, just tie the knot; don't start helping with the rest of the project or making suggestions on how to do it. She wants to do it herself, in her own way. She wants, at the moment, to use you just as a tool, a knot-tying machine, and that's all you should be. She wants to do the whole project in her own way, and she doesn't want any advice about how to do it. That would spoil the fun. If she finds herself feeling that she has to do it the way you seem to want her to, then what was previously play becomes work. And next time she needs a little help on something, she won't ask you. In fact, she'll take pains to stay as far away from you as possible whenever she's doing anything that she wants to do herself.

If your child asks you for advice—about anything, be it her project, how to get along better with a friend, or how to solve some homework problem—be as direct as you can and keep yourself tuned to her facial expressions and other expressions of interest or boredom so you know when to stop. If there is to be a discussion related to a question she asked, let her take the lead, or at least let her take an equal part. Once she's no longer taking an equal part, let the discussion stop before it turns into a lecture.

The matter is different, of course, if your child asks to join you in some project. If your daughter wants to help you rotate the tires on the car, for example, then you have every right to tell her just what to do. This is fundamentally your project, not hers, and in joining you she is saying, in essence, "teach me how to do this."

2. Before offering unsolicited help or advice, count to 10.

For many of us, the offering of advice is reflexive and impulsive. We do it without thinking about its consequences. The old suggestion to count to 10 before expressing anger works because even such a brief delay gives us a chance to think about the impulse and control it. The same is true about giving advice. Before you start telling your son what he should wear when he goes outside, what he should eat, or how he should speak, count to 10. Perhaps in those seconds, you'll decide that the advice would do no good, or isn't really that important, and you'll drop it. If the advice still seems important, you will give it, but the pause may lead you to give it in a more circumspect way, perhaps as a reasoned suggestion rather than an impulsive command.

3. Before trying to protect your child from danger, think of the potential benefits as well as the potential costs of the "dangerous" behavior.

Many popular books and articles have been written about the damage we do to children, today, by overprotecting them. And they are right. Children, in their play, naturally and adaptively expose themselves to moderate dangers. The child climbing high in a tree, skateboarding down a banister, or diving from a cliff is experiencing the thrill of danger. Mother Nature drives children to do these things because she knows that they must learn to confront dangers and deal with them if they are to become successful adults. She has endowed children both with the drive to engage in "dangerous" play and with the good sense to know their own limits.

Children dose themselves with just the amounts of danger that they know they can handle, and that is how they learn to deal with the dangers and fears that will confront them throughout life. Hunter-gatherer parents recognized this, and so they allowed their children to play with fire, and with sharp objects, and out in the jungle where there were tigers, and at all sorts of dangerous-looking physical stunts. They had faith that their children knew what they were doing, and their faith was well placed.

Many parents today put their children into adult-directed sports because they think those activities are safer and better for their children than free play. But, in fact, there is evidence that children are more likely to sustain serious injuries in the former than in the latter (see post of Oct. 27, 2009, and see Mark Hyman's book, Until it Hurts: America's Obsession with Youth Sports). To meet the demands to "win" or to become "stars" in adult-directed sports, children play when injured; overuse certain muscles, bones, and joints because of the repetitive nature of the activity; and engage in physical confrontations and efforts that their good sense would not allow if they were playing on their own.

Many of our fears for our children are irrational, driven by the media. I live in one of the safest neighborhoods in the United States, and yet I see parents every day waiting at the school bus stop to pick up their kids because they are afraid they will be snatched by child molesters or kidnappers on the two-block walk from the bus stop to home. This is truly crazy. The chance that those kids will die in a traffic accident on the two-block drive home (because the parents are too lazy to walk it) is greater than the chance that someone would snatch them if they were walking home alone. In either case, the probability is negligible.

Before forbidding some kind of activity because it is dangerous, think about the question of how dangerous it really is, and weigh that against the exercise, skill, confidence, and emotional control—not to mention sheer fun—that your child gains by engaging in the activity. And think about the damage done by continuously implanting in your child the sense that he or she is incompetent to make decisions or to do anything alone, without protection.

4. Be on your child's side, not an opponent.

When your belief about what your child should do is seriously different from your child's, even after you have thought about it, try not to turn the difference into a confrontation. Listen to your child. Try to understand what your child wants and why. Be an ally, not an opponent. Adopt your child's point of view. Maybe you can help your child think of a way to get what he or she wants without running the risk that has you worried. Or perhaps your child will convince you that it isn't such a risk after all.

5. Remember that your child is not you and is not a reflection of you.

We call it "reproduction," but when we make a child we don't really reproduce ourselves. We don't even produce something that is a half-and-half mix of ourselves and our partner. Because of the genetic phenomena of crossing over and a random assortment of genes, with every child we make we produce an entirely new and different human being. Our task as parents is to get to know that human being and to help it along in the ways that it wants to be helped.

We make a serious mistake if we try to shape our children into replicas of ourselves, or if we think of them as extensions or reflections of ourselves. Because our children are different from us, their needs and priorities are different from ours. Any help and advice we give them, if it is to be real help and useful advice, must take that into account. We need to help them to be them, not try to turn them into us or into something that we think will make us look good.

6. Your goal as a parent is to foster your child's development, not to impress other adults with your parenting skills.

Some parents seem to approach parenting as a competitive sport. They want to be the best parent around, in the eyes of all the other parents, or at least they don't want to look like a bad parent. Those parents are really thinking about themselves and their own status, not about their children. Don't fall into that trap. If you think your child would benefit from walking home from the bus stop, or even all the way home from school, without you or another adult along, then let your child do it. If you are worried that your neighbor will think you are a negligent parent and you value your neighbor's continued friendship, then explain your reasoning to your neighbor, but if he or she fails to understand, so be it. Your goal is to help your child, not to impress your neighbor.

7. The most significant and potentially valuable influence you can have on your child comes from macromanagement of the environment, not micromanagement of your child's behavior.

Our primary responsibility to our children is not that of telling them moment-to-moment or day-to-day how to behave. Rather, our primary responsibility is to provide them with a healthy environment in which to develop—an environment that allows their developmental instincts to operate as they are meant to operate. You determine where you live and what choices in schooling your kids have, and you play a big role in setting the general tenor of the family. Those are the tasks to think about if you want to help your kids develop in the healthiest ways possible.

One of the best ways you can help your kids is to work with your community to create safe-enough outdoor places to play in your neighborhood, so they can get away from you and learn to get along with other kids without adult direction, can dose themselves with just the right amounts of danger without you looking on and worrying, and can find people who expand their horizons beyond what you and the rest of your family can provide.

Your job is not to protect your children from the world. Your job is to provide means for your children to learn, in their own ways, about the world and to prepare themselves for it. And, to the degree that you can, your job is to help make the world a better place—better for your children, your children's children, and everyone's children.

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