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“The Pendulum of Parenting Has Swung Too Far”

Laissez Faire is a kind way to describe the hands-off parenting many of us experienced in the ‘70s and ‘80s. We ran free, made terrible decisions, and limped home at dark. Today, unstructured, unsupervised free time is simply unheard of. And our kids are worse off as a result.   

News flash: Your parents were NOT helicopter parents. Chances are, they were quite the opposite.

Victoria Fedden’s “If ‘70s Moms Had Blogs” is a hilarious read for any modern-day mom who came of age in the ‘70s or ‘80s and remembers 5-hour-long cartoon marathons every Saturday, Pop Rocks for breakfast, Tab soda, and ash trays in the backward-facing station wagon seats. Unlike our own mothers, we feel perpetually guilty for not being able to witness and participate in every aspect of our kids’ daily life — and we tend to overcompensate by going BIG.

You know what our mothers felt guilty over? Not much. They let us out to play after breakfast, checked in with us at lunch, and expected us home by the time the street lights came on. As children, we spent time alone, exploring the outdoors. I’m not saying nobody was hurt, wandered off, or made terrible decisions. I’m just saying that we spent time without adult supervision – and that was a good thing.

Today, we feel compelled to track our kids’ every action — and smart phones allow us to actually do it. What does that mean? We are not giving our children the space to just be without scheduling their time, overseeing their choices or social interactions, and monitoring them pretty much constantly.

So how can we raise resourceful, resilient children with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) who go on to pursue, develop, and maintain healthy goals, careers, and relationships? Read on.

[Free Webinar Replay: Building Resilience in Students with ADHD]

1. Let Them Make Mistakes

When I see my child making a bad decision, my natural instinct is to communicate to her some of the possible outcomes and dangers. “You’ll get sand in your eyes,” I told my 5 year old this weekend while on the beach.

What I should have done: watched in silence, allowing him to experiment with the sand — pouring it, digging it, and seeing what happened. It is only through trial and error that we learn about our world and how things work. When was the last time you learned to do something without actually trying it?

You see, our brains work by associating images, smells, sounds, and emotions with experiences. We remember what we decided and the outcome. Based on that outcome, we decide if we should do this again… or not. In short, I should have let my child get sand in his eyes and make the connection that when you fling sand with a shovel, you are probably going to get hurt… especially if there is a breeze. Obviously, we are not going to sit back and let our children experiment if there is a risk of real danger or injury, but if there isn’t, just shut up and watch.

This also applies to our pre-teens and teens. When your child waits until the last minute to work on a project or complete a homework assignment, resist the urge to email the teacher or work on their project with her. At the outset, absolutely work with your child on creating a plan, and then let them go to it. If he doesn’t finish or meet the requirements of the assignment, let him turn it in. Let him receive the grade. Let him reassess how he wants to handle a future assignment or project.

[Q: How Can I Keep My Teen from Giving Up When Things Get Tough?]

The process won’t be that logical or clear cut. It may take your child multiple experiences until she makes the connection. Your job is to ask questions and make suggestions, but not to create a plan, initiate purchasing the materials, review the rubric, take out the materials, etc. Ask questions like, “Do you think you want to start your project now? Do you think you will have enough time to finish it? Do you have all the materials you need? Do you have a plan?” And then walk away.

If you have started down this path, but abandoned it when you began to see that your child was not meeting the deadline or achieving a good grade, you are essentially teaching your child that he can wait you out and you will do it all for him. Resist this urge. It may mean walking away, reading a book, or beginning your own project, but do not do this for your child.

2. Disengage from Your Children

Yes, disengage. That is, let your child problem solve instead of jumping in and solving problems for them. Our children are used to their problems becoming our problems — right before we take over. When your child tells you that she is having a hard time joining a game during recess, instead of calling the Guidance Counselor or sending an email to your child’s teacher, ask her, “Well, how do you think you can join the game? Is there something you can say?”

Get that problem-solving thinking going at a young age; if they are able to problem solve now, they will feel more confident in their abilities when they become older and the situations become more complex.

If your middle- or high-school student forgets his homework sheet, as my 12 year old often does, don’t run back to school. Instead, ask him: “How might you be able to get a copy of that worksheet?” Don’t text other moms or email the teacher; don’t bail him out.

If your child texts you that she forgot her lunch or sneakers, don’t run over and bring them to school. Foisting responsibility (and repercussions) on her will make her more proactive in remembering her school materials next time. This may mean that your child faces the consequence of being hungry or of missing a gym class. That’s OK — in fact, it may benefit her in the long run.

3. Hand Over Social Control

Do you remember your mother setting up “playdates” for you? I didn’t think so. When we played with other kids, we made those arrangements — particularly in our tween and teen years.

I have seen moms socially engineer their kids’ social circles well into high school. I have seen them create friendships with other children who are a “good match,” not allowing their child to forge those friendships naturally. As parents, we tend to panic if our children aren’t playing with other kids several times per week. Some kids love this. My 9-year-old daughter, on the other hand, is perfectly content playing with a friend one time per week, or less!

Encourage your child to invite friends over to play, and then approach you with a proposed plan. The more initiative our kids take in choosing who they want to spend time with and setting up times to play, the stronger their social-skill development will be.

4. Give Them Time to Explore and Just Be

Our children are overscheduled and overstimulated. When is the last time your child lazily stared at the clouds, devised her own games to play, or initiated a conversation with someone new? When you’re running from one activity to another, or staring at an electronic device, it’s tough to do.

To dial down the rush-rush lifestyle and mindset, build in some downtime to decompress and de-stress as a family. Don’t sign up your child for three activities in addition to school; choose one per season. By creating space for downtime in your house, you are role-modeling how to find life balance. Unfortunately, our children are rushed and pulled in multiple directions at a very young age. They don’t know what to do with themselves when presented with a few minutes of no activity. Our kids either scream, “I’m bored” or rush for an electronic device to fill the void.

To address this, shut down well before bedtime and build in time to decompress. Disengage from electronics and find a quiet activity that will tell your body and mind that the end of the day is here.

In an effort to give our children a wonderful life and amazing experiences, our parenting style has swung in the opposite direction of our own parents’. As a result, we are raising a generation of children that doesn’t know how to do things for itself because we manage everything — and that is rushed, scared, and overwhelmed. By letting the pendulum rest in the middle, we will find that middle-area of parenting where we are serving as coaches for our resilient children rather than playing the game of life for them.

[Read This: Rules for Resilience]

2 Comments & Reviews

  1. I totally agree with this article. I am trying very hard not to schedule my kids for too many activities anymore. We have cut back to two activities per kid per week. And the weekends, only one day that is build with back-to-back activities. I have noticed that we all seem to be a little calmer. But I still have friends who have their kids scheduled in back-to-back activities. They are in to sports, to clubs, and the entire weekend is filled with tournaments or other types of activity.

    And it also seems that when kids don’t seem to have any activities, that they are playing violent video games that seem to rev up their anger responses. I am seeing more kids who backtalk and show defiance towards their parents Than I remember seeing before.

    And the teachers seem to be piling on more homework than I remember growing up with. This does not help the kids as much as I think they wanted to.

    The results of this lifestyle – very stressed out kids

  2. These are great points. One thing I would add to the “don’t bail him out” point would be that it’s okay to make exceptions, especially for a kid with ADHD. It’s not going to mess them up or make them lazy. To me, it’s just part of being a family. Let’s say your kid worked hard and spent hours on a science project that had a hard deadline, but walked out of the house and left it sitting on the kitchen counter in a classic ADHD moment – and because during the car ride they’re absorbed in conversation or in the songs on the radio or their thoughts, they don’t think about it until you drop them at school, and when they do, the panic. Bringing the project in the next day often means half credit. If you have the ability – run that thing up to the school. Your kid will be grateful for it, not suddenly realize that it’s okay to be lazy.

    I’m not saying you should do it every time, or that if it’s inconvenient or impossible that you should push your boundaries to do it, but if it’s relatively simple for you to do, why not? What exactly is the lesson there? “Don’t forget things”? Sorry – but trouble with working memory is going to be a problem they’ll deal with their whole life if they have ADHD. It can be incredibly frustrating and even heartbreaking sometimes. I’ve bailed out my ADHD dad when he’s forgotten simple things, and vice versa. It’s us being there for each other. And you can be sure that when that kid gets a job, they won’t be calling you because they left their report at home – they’ll turn around and get it, and show up late to the office rather than showing up empty-handed. But a child who can’t drive doesn’t have that luxury.

    Again, some of these points are great, but a few of them seem to reinforce the idea that ADHD is, at its core, laziness. And it’s not. If your kid is trying and failing, and frustrated and hating themself because they can’t figure it out, pulling back so that they’ll “learn” to focus probably isn’t going to help. Leaning in, with clear boundaries and encouragement, is probably the best bet.

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