Paul J. Donahue, Ph.D.
I meet many extremely successful adults in my practice- people who have risen to the top of their fields through grit and hard work. They often report that they have always had a strong drive to succeed and a level of internal motivation that set them apart from their peers. Many rose from difficult circumstances, and although they may have received some encouragement along the way, they retain a sense that their own diligence and capacity to struggle through challenging times has set them in good stead in life.
So what brings them to my office? Often they are stumped at how to impart the same lessons to their children. Having achieved a level of comfort and success, they are not sure if their kids will have the same ambition, work ethic and resilience.
One father, whom I’ll call Charlie, was frustrated by his 14 year old son’s inability to focus on more challenging school work. Charlie talked of all the ways he tried to inspire his son, including taking him in the basement to see the volumes of extra work he did in high school and college. His son was impressed but couldn’t see how his father’s experience in school was relevant now. Exasperated, Charlie blurted out, “Sometimes I wish my kids had the same disadvantages I had!”
In my experience there are legions of bright, successful and well intentioned parents with the same dilemma. They want the best for their kids and they spend lots of time and energy fretting over what they should do to help them succeed- in the classroom, on the sports fields and in the social arena. When their plans go awry they are stumped. Why aren’t their kids motivated? Where’s their desire to do their best- a fire that burned so bright in their moms and dads?
The answer to those questions lies in a simple paradox: If you want more for you kids, do less for them.
All the recent research about resilient children, those who overcome hardship and learn to work hard in and out of school points in the same direction: kids who are independent and disciplined, and have an internal sense of their own efficacy and abilities, do well in life.
The problem is, many kids today don’t get that chance. Early on they get used to their parents help. They think nothing of asking their parents to pick up after them, to chauffer them all over town, to make multiple dinners, to chip in with their homework and to schedule multiple play dates every week. I hear from many parents who feel guilty whenever their kids are frustrated or unhappy. They worry that they must somehow be “letting them down.”
Trying to anticipate all of our children’s needs and satisfy their every desire is counter-productive. We risk finding out years later that our kids are still dependent on us, a little entitled, and unable to handle challenges on their own. In some cases, that discovery happens too late. I work with many hovered-over teenagers who are now finding it hard to take on the responsibilities of adolescence and young adulthood.
The “do less” philosophy of parenting assumes that children who are left to their own devices are likely to be more independent and resourceful, and have higher levels of self-esteem. As parents, the best route to helping our kids become more self-sufficient is to hover less and give them more autonomy when they are young, allowing them to be the initiators of their actions (“Honey, it’s your homework, not ours! I’ve been to fifth grade!”).
If we can learn to step back, and give our kids some breathing room, we might just be surprised how much they can accomplish. In the process, parents might also feel less stressed and less responsible for their children’s day to day level of achievement and happiness.
We can begin while our children are still in preschool. Letting them get dressed on their own and pick up after themselves are good places to start. By elementary and middle school, some parents find that their kids can be independent contributors to the family, “part of the solution,” not just the source of more work.
In many ways the prescription for change is a simple one. As parents we can have a few mantras: “Leave them be;” “Don’t hover or micro-manage;” “Let kids take care of their own business;” “Less is more.”
The examples below are all straightforward methods for giving kids more responsibility and less help. To some they may suggest an earlier time, when family life was less hectic. I’m not advocating a throwback, “Little House on the Prairie” approach to parenting, but I do believe that the basic lessons we want to teach kids- to be independent, to persevere, and to be resilient- haven’t changed much over the years.
Here are 10 Ways to Do Less and Accomplish More as a Parent:
1. Let your children learn to play by themselves.
It’s important for us to engage with our kids, but they also benefit from learning how to extend and create their own fantasy play, sports and games. This enhances their self-reliance and self-confidence, and gives them a sense that they can initiate activities and can start to control their own destiny.
2. Teach them to clean up their toys and clothes.
By age three, children can begin to take some personal responsibility for their things, behaviors that can assist their learning to become more organized and self-disciplined later on.
3. Don’t Schedule too many play dates.
Kids need time to explore on their own, to learn to think, play or just let their minds wander. It is difficult to do this if they are always in the company of other children.
4. Expect your kids to start their homework on their own.
While it make sense for parents to be interested in and available to answer their children’s questions, homework is a time for kids to learn to tackle challenges on their own, often by focusing and struggling with concepts before asking for help.
5. Make just one meal for dinner. Don’t be a Short-Order Cook!
Part of growing up is learning how to be flexible, and how to live in a community and to tolerate diverse tastes and needs. Meal time is a perfect opportunity for kids to learn these lessons, and to understand that they can have reasonable input, but not complete control over family decisions.
6. Let your kids learn to entertain themselves off-line.
I’m not against kids spending time on their computers and other electronic devices, as long as they are not wedded to them. Parents should feel comfortable setting limits on screen time, and expect their children to find other diversions. This can help them to be more creative and imaginative and less reliant on external means of entertainment.
7. Give your children real chores.
Simple chores teach kids at a young age that they are contributing members of the family, who can be helpful and take on responsibility without too much adult assistance.
8. Buy fewer treats and toys: Let kids earn money and manage their expenses
Allowing even young kids to earn small amounts of money that they can spend or save teaches important lessons in self-control and delayed gratification, and gives them the satisfaction that they can make valued contributions by doing real work.
9. Only sign your kids up for one or two activities at a time.
While children can benefit from organized sports, creative pursuits and other activities, they also can easily become worn down if they are over-scheduled. Doing fewer things allow them the time to play, to read and to pursue other interests without the constant presence of adult supervision and instruction.
10. Don’t overdo praise- Do Recognize a job well done!
Parents naturally want to support their children and often praise them frequently, but it is important to remember that kids feel a real sense of pride and accomplishment when they hear genuine appreciation for their hard work and good effort in specific situations.
Dr. Paul Donahue is a nationally-recognized child and family psychologist based in Scarsdale, NY. He is the author of Parenting Without Fear (St. Martins Press, 2007), and the co-author of Mental Health Consultation in Early Childhood. Dr. Donahue is a frequent lecturer to parents, teachers and professional groups throughout the country. More information on his work is available at www.drpauldonahue.com.
Disclaimer: Disclaimer: Although Dr. Donahue is a member of the Westchester County Psychological Association (WCPA,) the views in this article are his and not the views of WCPA.
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