July 27, 2022
During a graduate school reunion, a friend asked me an interesting question.
“We had our first child late in life and wonder what advice you might share. She is 8 and we only plan to have one kiddo. What can we do to help her the most?”
Oddly enough, I had been thinking about this great deal. Five years earlier, I had been asked to do a TED-style talk about parenting. At this reunion, I was speaking about a different topic (traveling as a family), but I knew people might ask some follow-up questions. As a result, I had an answer ready for her.
When she asked, “What can we do to help her the most?”my response was “ help her less.”
Before I explain this, let me share a quick observation on parenting trends.
Today’s parents are more attentive to and connected with their kiddos than previous generations. Over the past fifty years, US parents have meaningfully increased the amount of time they spend with their children. College-educated mothers spend roughly twice as many hours as they did in the 1970s while college-educated fathers increased their time by a factor of 3-4 times. Mothers still spend 50% more time than fathers, but the gap is closing. For the most part, children benefit from this extra time. Educational attainment and emotional support seem to track with parental involvement.
But in some cases, the extra time is not as helpful.
Loving parents can err on the side of fighting battles for our children rather than trusting them to develop resilience and social strategies on their own. Here, I am not talking about serious bullying situations where parents should be involved, but spats between friends, basic teasing, learning how to navigate a friend group, etc.
Susie and I learned this lesson with our own kids. When they would approach us with a problem, we were quick to offer guidance. They stopped making their own assessments and instead turned to us each time. Once we realized this, we stopped giving advice, and instead asked them what they thought they should do. We helped them think through their own ideas and as they grew in confidence, they used these same strategies in other situations. Don’t do the work of childhood for your children.
Extra parenting can also convince the child that the world will adjust to them rather than the other way around. Best-selling youth psychologist Wendy Mogel describes the problem this way – “we prepare the road for our children rather than preparing the child for the road”.
Like with my friends from school, this can be an extra challenge when a kiddo is an only child. If there are no other children to share resources (be they parental time or just the TV remote), a child can rightly come to assume that other people will adjust to their needs. [Note: if you have an only child, please know that I am not being critical – you have already done something to help address any of the issues I talk about here. Read on!]
When my friend asked what they should do, I suggested sending her to camp. OK, I know the old saying that “when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail”. I have decided to be a camp director, so it is not crazy to assume that I think camp is the answer to most of life’s ills.
Camp is not the answer to all life’s ills. There – I said it.
But it is a very good one to help with the development of confidence, cooperation, social skills, friendship and independence. When you have 10 cabinmates, you cannot sustain the belief that your needs and wants are more important than everyone else’s. Camp is a natural, and fun, way to learn this lesson.
I congratulate you on having the courage to send your children to camp and the confidence in them that they will return stronger and more capable. I do not pretend that camp attendance is easy for a parent, but I know that it helps children grow.