Monday, January 9, 2017

2017 - The Year of "Do It Yourself"

"Get It Yourself, Bob!"

Another new year upon us.  Of course all of my resolutions to eat healthier, exercise more, be nicer, more generous, etc. have already fallen by the wayside this week.  Good thing there are only 51 short weeks left in this year so I can try again next year.  2018 is going to be my year!  I've commented before that I'm actually not much for resolutions, more for "year themes".  Last year I didn't really get around to a year theme, so it was probably just the year of survival.  2015 I dubbed "The Year of Do", and we did some stuff.  I've decided this year's theme will be "The Year of Do It Yourself".  A year in which I parent myself out of a job.

I recently finished the book, How To Raise an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims.  Shocker, I know, I read another parenting book.  I've gotten into the habit when I read that if I see a quote/passage/idea I like, I take a picture of the page.  I'm sure this is some sort of copyright infringement, but since I get most all of the books I read from the public library, I figure it's better than highlighting and underlining the book, especially considering I'll probably never check it out again (too many other books on parenting to read).  Far and away, this book set the record for number of page photos taken.  The book has a number of incredibly salient and worthwhile points, and if you have a child a living under your roof (no matter their age), I would strongly encourage you to read it.

The central premise of the book discusses the overparenting phenomenon that exists primarily in affluent households in the United States and the detriments it can cause.  As the former Dean of First Year Students at Stanford University, the author had a significant amount of experience interacting and dealing with 18-22 year old "people" (call them what you want, kids, adults, emerging adults, spoiled millenials, etc.) who lacked the ability to think independently or wanted to do so, but had parents that were unable and unwilling to give them that freedom.  Having spent almost a decade working in higher ed myself, I was no stranger to the existence of "helicopter parenting", and even had my own experiences interacting with students who seemed unable to make decisions on their own.

Dean Julie (as she was often referred to at Stanford), makes the observation that a lot of our overparenting is done with the best of intentions.  We want to be there for our kids and we feel like a bad parent if we aren't, especially when we observe other parents.  I've read quite a bit of commentary on how our attitudes toward parenting have become that of a "concerted cultivation", so it seems only natural that we tend to be personally vested in the successes and failures of our children, often times seeing them as our own successes and failures.  But failure is inevitable in life, and as the author and others have pointed out, if we can't allow our kids to fail and learn from those failures early on in life when the stakes are considerably lower, it will only become more challenging as they age, when the stakes are much higher and they've likely become accustom to never failing before.

While the book had a number of good points, there were a few in particular that resonated for me as I encourage my kids to increase their independence and self sufficiency, and seemed pretty concise and easy to follow.  Lythcott-Haims offers up the following suggestions from child psychologist Madeline Levine on how to avoid overparenting:
  1. Don't do for your child what they can already do for themselves
  2. Don't do for your child what they can almost do for themselves
  3. Never let your parenting behavior be motivated by your own ego
In the book, Lythcott-Haims also recommends the Family Education Network's Age-By-Age Life Skills Guide.  I'll be completely honest that reading the list was a needed wake up call in how I can/should be doing a better job of helping my kids acquire good life skills.  Obviously our kids can't develop these skills overnight, and it takes some work to get them to a desired level of competency.  But the sooner you teach them the skill, the more confidence they will gain and the more it will help relieve some of the stress you feel as a parent.  Too often we do things for our kids because it is just easier or quicker.  I'll admit that I do this a lot.  But consider if you take the time to teach them something, like tie their shoes, while it might be an insanely frustrating process and may make you late for work/school/social event, once they get it down, you can expect them to do it themselves.  

In encouraging kids to strive for self sufficiency and independence, Lythcott-Haims offers up a four step approach.  First, you do it for them.  Second, you do it with them.  Third, you watch them do it.  Fourth, they do it on their own.  With this, you have to learn to let go of some control.  I've heard before that you can't control your kids, you can only coach them and hope that they make good decision.  If your expectation is that your kid dress themselves, you have to learn to be okay with the fact that their outfit might not match.  But as most parents can attest, when attempting to get a kid dressed in the morning can often range from a hostage negotiation to a Greco-Roman wrestling match, just having a kid with clothes on is a parenting win.

So what have we done in our house to encourage kids to be self sufficient?  Even before reading this book, I read about making things more accessible to your kids so they can be more independent.  I relocated all of our "kid tableware" (plastic cups, plates, etc.) to a cupboard that they could easily reach, instead of a cabinet that I was constantly lifting them up to so they could leisurely ponder what cup they'd like to drink out of, only to change their mind about 20 times.  I also moved all of the kid-approved food items to shelves in our cupboards and fridge that they can reach without needing to precariously climb on the counter tops.  At first I questioned the idea of allowing them easy access to food they could eat (and potentially spill all over the floor) at will.  But then I figured if I was concerned about them eating something, or too much of something, I probably shouldn't even have it in the house.  If they spill it all over the floor, I'll show them where the broom and dust pan resides.

Beyond the kitchen, I recently installed some temporary coat hooks by our back door that the kids can easily reach, with the expectation that they can hang up their own coats instead of throwing them on the floor.  I've also tried to stand firm about making them put their own clothes away (the older two at least) and tried to come up with some easy organizational solutions, with the kid's input^, to help them do a better job of putting away their toys, lest any left out toys go mysteriously missing.  It only seems to make sense that if you want kids to be independent and do things for themselves, you have to make it feasible for them to do so, by creating an environment where they are not completely dependent on you.  I'm also hoping to get Gus out of diapers, or at least proficient in changing his own diaper, before the snow melts.    

Encouraging self sufficiency has also forced my wife and I to be extremely mindful of not doing things for our kids that we know they can do themselves, or almost do themselves, as Levine recommends.  This is probably the biggest challenge and can often be the most frustrating as a parent.  Just last week when I brought Isla to her weekly dance class, she realizing that she didn't have a hair tie, a necessary accessory according to her dance teacher.  She proceed to melt down, exclaiming that she wanted me to drive her home so we could get one.  When I suggested that she could ask one her classmates or their parent if they had an extra, she told me she couldn't do it because she was too scared and informed me that she no longer wanted dance that night.  After spending about 15 minutes trying to ensure her that she could indeed ask a parent of her classmates, and that I was not going to do it for her, she eventually relented.  Once she secured the small circle of rubber, she wiped the tears from her eyes, put her hair back and bounded into the room with a smile on her face like she nothing ever happened.  I sometimes wish I had a short-term memory like that.

Those moments are hard, and those are times we all too often just give in and do it for our kid.  Either because it is easier or because we want to prevent the inevitable meltdown we know is about to ensue.  But we can't shield our kids from the challenges of the world forever.  We have to prepare them for hard work, as Lythcott-Haims suggests, for doing things that are uncomfortable for them, and probably even more uncomfortable for us to watch.  While they may not be happy with us, or the situation at the moment, developing these skills of resilience and self sufficiency is one of the most essential tools for attaining lasting happiness, and ultimately will help our kids become more successful later on in life.  If we are constantly trying to make our kids happy when they are angry and frustrated, instead of learning how to control their own happiness, they will always look to others (people and things) to do it for them.

When we step back from trying to overparent, we allow our kids to flourish on their own, finding their own passions and interests.  When we allow kids to try things that they want to do, not necessarily the things we want them to do, it helps our kids find a purpose, which educator Bill Damon sees as something that is "essential for achieving happiness and satisfaction in life."  If we give them room to explore and experiment, they are bound to make mistakes, and get hurt in the process - emotionally and physically.  But if we "wince instead of pounce, if we recognize that set-backs and failures build character, just like bumps and bruises build (hopefully) foresight.  Then we help show our kids that they can achieve their dreams, along as they are willing to work hard and learn from their experiences.

As parents, taking a step back from overparenting also helps us reclaim ourselves, as one of the chapters in How to Raise an Adult imparts.  "It's not selfish to make ample room for the things we value in life: It's critically important.  In order to be good role models, we need to put ourselves first."   If we want our kids to find their own purpose and passion, we should make sure that we demonstrate to them what our passion is and how we find purpose.   As psychiatrist Carl Jung put it, "nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment and especially on their children than the unlived life of the parent."  Or as one mother chided her adult daughter who was complaining about all of the time she spent at her kid's activities.  "Go get a life.  Your kids will observe that and think, 'Okay, that's how you get a life.'  And they'll want to go get one of their own."  When we look at our life, is it a life that we'd want our kids to emulate when they become adults?

Ultimately, we have to decide how we are going to help our kids become productive members of society.  I love my kids, and I love spending time with them.  But once they turn 18, I'd much rather them be interested in leaving the house willingly, equipped with the life skills necessary to be a productive member of society and eager to have their own adventures.  Sure their Mom and I will be available to help and offer our advice when it is appropriate,  But by that point, they should be capable of doing things without seeking parental approval, something author and professor Bill Deresiewicz considers the defining act of becoming an adult.  Based on the modern trend of overparenting to ensure that kids become "successful"*, especially among those affluent enough to have the opportunity to overparent, allowing your child the independence to become their own person and embracing them for what they become may seem like a precarious endeavor.  But as Deresiewicz points out, "If we want our kids to turn out differently, we have to raise them differently."

Well, there's your breakfast, and lunch, and dinner.

I resisted the urge to tell her she missed some spots.

If you want frosting on those cookies, pipe it yourself.

^One of these solutions was to drastically reduce the number of toys that they have.  This was obviously done without their input, but they don't seem to have noticed much difference.

*In the parents eyes or in the eyes of the people the parent is desperately trying to impress.

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