Meet kids’ basic needs; then stay out of their way

“When we truly love ourselves, we become able to uplift and assist others.” Julie Lythcott-Haims

I listened to Julie Lythcott-Haims interviewed on a virtual conference and loved everything that she had to say. Julie is a lawyer, author, activist, and former Stanford Undergraduate Advising Dean. She discussed ideas from her first book, How to Raise an Adult, which includes a devastating mental health crisis that has resulted from overparenting. Often referred to as “helicopter parenting” is this idea that we are standing over our kids, shadowing them at all times. We are unintentionally crippling our kids and undermining their skills. I plan to share much more from her talk but wanted to focus on one thing she said: Meet kids’ basic needs, then stay out of their way.

Best intentions

It is always with the best of intentions that we step in to assist our children. We get involved, problem solve, and help them for all of the right reasons. The problem is, when we do this, we are often undermining our children in the process – something we surely aren’t intending to do.

The problem with overparenting is that it is creating a mental health crisis. We are inadvertently sending our kids the message that 1. They are not capable and 2. They are dependent on us. Neither of these are messages I know I want to be sending but every time I overparent, this is exactly what is happening.

Let go

As a self proclaimed control freak, it is really hard for me to let go. It is something I have to consciously work on and actively guard against. Just let me do it. I can do it faster. Please just stay out of my way… are thoughts that I have and are working to replace. This pandemic has been really good for me as my nature is to buzz around like a hummingbird and I’ve been forced to slow down. By slowing down and stepping back, I am creating spaces for my kids to step up.

Keep them alive

Julie says it best:

Our job as parents is to keep our kids alive. Otherwise, life is their teacher and we need to allow the various normal things of life to happen.

Julie Lythcott-Haims

Initially, this made me feel anxious and panicky. Life is their teacher? Not me? However, the more I have sat with this, the more I understand what she is saying. If I step in for every sibling squabble, they will never develop the skills to do this independently. While this doesn’t mean I simply stand by watching them flounder, it also doesn’t mean that I need to jump in and rescue at the first sign of distress.

The other day Keener (4.5) and Grace (almost 3) were working on a puzzle together. They had completed the puzzle and were putting it away when sh*t hit the fan. When emotions are high, Grace bites and Keener tackles. The dinner could wait; I realized my presence was needed as the gloves had officially come off.

I came over and physically had to use my body to separate Keener and Grace. I tried to stay calm and not add to the stress that was well under way. My goal wasn’t to find out who did what first as that never goes well. Instead, I simply served as a barrier and repeated, I can’t let you do that. I need to keep everyone safe, including you.

A puzzle is not a lion

From there, I comforted Keener who was rather upset that the puzzle wasn’t being put away the way he wanted. I tried to listen and allow space for these big feelings, as trivial as they seemed to me. I got down on his level. Realization number one: part of staying out of our kids way is not talking. I talk WAY too much to my kids and am working on listening more.

Once his little body wasn’t in panic mode, it appeared safe to let them be in close proximity. From there, I had to fight my tendencies not to become their teacher. To listen to Julie and let the various normal things of life to happen. Sure enough, once everyone was feeling calm, they figured out a system that worked for both of them.

Now, had I stepped in and tried to solve the problem for them, I can pretty much guarantee mostly bad things would have happened. 1. They would have become upset with me. 2. My idea definitely would not have worked and 3. I would have deprived them of this chance to learn from life. Further, I never would have come up with the plan they did which was sorting the pieces by size.

Which brings me to my second realization: a puzzle is not a lion. In the moment, the amygdala, which is the part of our brain that perceives threat, gets activated. I can perceive a simple sibling argument over a puzzle as a lion and my body can quickly go into fight or flight mode.

Recognizing fight or flight

Yet, the more I am working on this, the better I am able to keep my amygdala in check (and I just learned I am actually rewiring my own brain each time I do it). Am I able to do this every time? Hardly. However, not only do I feel better when I don’t perceive a puzzle as a lion, my kids feel better as well. Me flying off the handle bars has yet to help an already stressful situation between my kids.

Which brings me to realization number three: Step in when you’re needed and step out when you’re not. Keener and Grace needed me to keep them alive — or at least prevent them from getting bit or shoved to the ground. I did that and then my work there was done. I stepped back which allowed them to step up.

Recognizing when to help and when to help by staying out of their way isn’t easy. But it’s definitely something I need to start paying more attention to each day.

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