I’ve been thinking through the study I mentioned earlier this week, as well as previous research showing that children generally need less adult involvement in their decisions. Yet we are heading into a season where our instincts and current culture will take us in the opposite direction.
As we either start or plan for a new school year, we will face a seemingly infinite list of things that we need to do for our kids. With school conferences, homework, extracurricular activities, enrichment classes, therapy, and whatever else, our schedules often become busier than we can handle. We likely will hear all sorts of well-intentioned advice from teachers and other professionals. There is always something more we can do and not nearly enough time to do all of it. Rather than making ourselves crazy trying to keep up, our healthiest response may be to stop trying to do so much for our kids.
We Cannot Make Our Children Happy
One unfortunate aspect of the current spate of competitive parenting is the sense that we are responsible for our kids’ happiness. We somehow believe that if we can just find the perfect combination of activities, we can ensure a wonderful future for our children. That sense assumes too much responsibility for us, and too little for our children. Kids have free will and will make their own decisions about what they believe is in their own interests. We can encourage, motivate, nudge, nag, and lecture our children, but we cannot control their emotions.
Nor can we control their reactions and behavior. We can teach and encourage them, but we can’t force them to do the things that lead to long-term happiness. In other words, when we take too much responsibility for our kids’ happiness, we are setting ourselves up for failure. We are just piling up opportunities for frustration, not actually meeting our goal.
Taking Too Much Responsibility Harms Our Children
It actually is not good for our kids when we take so much responsibility. The research I’ve been sharing is beginning to show that when we are too involved in our kids’ lives, they don’t develop the skills they need be independent and functioning adults. When we take on responsibility for our kids’ happiness and success, we are short-circuiting their learning process.
What To Do Instead
Even knowing that research, it is very hard to know when to take responsibility for decisions and when to let our children make their own decisions about their lives. The following principles have been helpful for our family.
• Some Adult Responsibilities are Unavoidable. We are the adults in the family, and we have to take on the adult responsibilities. Aside from keeping the lights on and rent or mortgage paid, we have to keep our kids safe. Boundaries such as curfews, social media, and minimum house rules are our responsibility and not negotiable.
We also are responsible for creating a stable and nurturing environment for our children. Creating that environment doesn’t guarantee that they will be able to overcome their trauma, but we do need to do all we can to create an emotionally safe environment.
• Don’t Try to Engineer The Future. Those unavoidable adult jobs are big enough. We don’t need to pile on responsibility for getting our kids into the “best” colleges, learning new skills, or just generally being happy.
It’s hard to resist this temptation to try to make our kids happy. It’s particularly hard when we are parenting children who have suffered trauma. Our instinct is to try to compensate for all that they have gone through, in hopes that we can make up for what they have missed. We really want to “fix” their future for them.
We have to find a way to let go of these fears, and concentrate instead on what our kids need now. They may decide on a technical career that doesn’t require a college degree. Even if they attend college, a low-pressure and lower-cost junior college may be a better place for them to start. In either case, spending time chasing top grades may be a waste of effort and energy.
• Shift Responsibility to Kids Whenever You Can. Outside of those areas that are unavoidably adult, let children have as much responsibility as we can. Even younger children can take on responsibility for their clothing choices or organizing their toys or figuring out how to spend an allowance. Late preteens can learn how to wash their clothes and change their sheets, as well as other household chores. Within the limits of age-appropriate and safe responsibilities, we can offload quite a bit to our children.
Giving them that responsibility may mean that we have to give up some of our hot button issues, such as whether or not their room is clean or their clothes match. But to the extent that we can give up the responsibility for age-appropriate decisions, our lives will be much calmer and less frustrating.
Shifting responsibility does not mean that we don’t enforce consequences. It simply means that we freely let our kids choose the consequences without piling others on top. For example, if they don’t do their homework, we can limit screen time or whatever other consequence we have warned them about. What we shouldn’t do is add lectures or nagging. If we take it on ourselves to start reminding them about future homework, then we are taking back responsibility that we need to leave with our children.
This recognition is one of the foundations of my recommendation to engineer logical consequences for our kids. They need to learn, in a safe and age-appropriate way, that decisions have consequences. If we impose artificial consequences (such as lectures or extra chores), then the only connection they make is how to keep us from lecturing. What we need to help them understand is the link between their choices and real-world consequences.
• Keep Working on Our Relationships. Limiting our responsibility does not mean that we give up on our children. We can, and should, keep building our relationships with them. We can be available to listen to and encourage them. We can show them that we are committed to them and that we care about them no matter how many of their decisions we disagree with. We are still the adults in the family, and we have to take the lead in showing them how to forge a relationship that lasts beyond temporary issues.
There are many decisions for our children that are inevitably our responsibility. We don’t need to take on responsibility for things that they need to learn to manage — school grades, their reactions to triggers, careers, or their own happiness. At the end of the day, we have to learn to step out of the way and let our children take more responsibility for their own lives.