Parents who do too much will not produce helpless kids

Q: According to my mother, my husband and I are just about the worst parents in the world.

She thinks that we do way too much for our three boys. For sure, I do more for the boys than my mom did for me, but that is another story.

The truth is that George and I probably do pamper and spoil our kids, but all of us have so much fun doing it with each other we are not likely to change.

One thing that bothers me about this is that Mom claims that by catering to the boys as much as we do, we are turning them into helpless beings with no drive to look after themselves when they ultimately graduate from high school and challenge the world of harsh realities.

I want my kids to be prepped for the world and not susceptible to either the inadequacy of skill or the disappointment of failure. I certainly do not want to raise helpless beings.

Is Mom right? Is that what we are doing? I am looking for some feedback.

A: Some recent literature in psychology talks about something called perceived responsiveness in relation to parent/child relationships. Perceived responsiveness is the extent to which children believe, rationally or otherwise, that they are being heard by their her parents. Most parents think that they know and understand their children, but if you look very closely at the interaction between them and their kids you very often find that the parents assume rather than know their children.

When that happens, the child is not well understood. Taken to the extreme, the child is helpless and hopeless, which is called “learned helplessness,” and that is the foundation for impulsivity, addictions and suicidal ideation.

In fact, your mother is most likely wrong. We do not get helpless children by doing too much for them. We get helpless children by not acknowledging each and every child as a moment of appreciation.

The other side of the coin is that children have to recognize that their parents are engaging them throughout the whole process. If children are not appreciating the extent to which Mom or Dad are reaching out for them, the whole momentum of the responsive parent could be lost. Sometimes you might have to remind your children that you are committed to their well-being. But don’t lay guilt trips on the kid when you do so.

The more that you are engaged with your children in perceived responsiveness, the more likely it is that they will carry at least some confidence into their academic and social challenges, and that confidence alone will stymie any drift toward learned helplessness.

Your mother does not have to worry. It isn’t what you do for your child that makes the difference. It is how the two of you relate to each other.

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