Here’s a wake-up call for American parents: We are doing too much for our kids. This is the origin of “helicopter parenting,” in which we constantly remove obstacles so that our kids don’t have to deal with challenges.
There were many unpopular parenting rules I followed as a young mother. But my No. 1 was: Don’t do anything for your kids that they can do for themselves.
That worked out for my daughters. All three grew up to be highly successful: Susan is the CEO of YouTube, Janet is a doctor, and Anne is the co-founder and CEO of 23andMe. They rose to the top of competitive, male-dominated professions.
Parents need to stop indulging their kids
The more you trust your children to do things independently, the more empowered they’ll be. To begin with guided practice, the key is the “I do, we do, you do” method. You can try this with all sorts of simple, everyday actions:
Waking up: Have them set their alarm; Getting dressed: Let them pick their outfit; Breakfast/lunch/dinner: Give them simple tasks like stirring the pancake batter, cleaning their lunchbox, and setting the table; Getting their backpack ready: Have them run through a list of what they need to bring that day.
Making plans: Let them come up with weekend or after-school activities; Checking homework: It’s okay if they don’t get 100% of the answers correct. Let them learn from their mistakes. Chores are essential. Washing dishes was a big one in our house. All my daughters stood on a little stool at the sink and washed the dishes after dinner.
And when we went grocery shopping, I’d ask them to get two pounds of apples. They had to pick out the good ones, which I’d taught them how to do, and measure pounds on the scale. If we went over our grocery budget, they’d help me decide what to put back.
Don’t worry about perfection.
I expected my daughters to make their beds every morning. Ha! A bed made by a kid can look like she’s still asleep in it. But I didn’t fight them. As long as they did it, I was happy. Mastery means doing something as often as it takes to get it right. Being a writing teacher taught me this. In the 80s and 90s, one of the supposed characteristics of a good teacher was that your class was so hard that many students failed.
But the kids who got a D on their first paper found it impossible to recover and lost the motivation to improve since they were starting so far behind. So I allowed them to revise their work as often as they wanted. Their grade was based on the final product. And when it came time for testing, my students performed in the 90th percentile of state exams. It was the learning and the hard work that I wanted to reward, not getting it right the first time.
Kids are smarter than you think.
To be clear, I’m not saying you should make your kids do things they don’t understand or aren’t capable of, nor should you let them play in the street if it isn’t safe or walk to the store if the neighborhood is dangerous. The idea is to teach them how to cope with what life throws at them. One of the most important lessons I taught my daughters is that you can only control how you react to things.
When you trust kids to make their own decisions, they feel more engaged, confident, and empowered. And once that happens, there’s no limit to what they can achieve.
Esther Wojcicki is an educator, journalist, and bestselling author of “How to Raise Successful People.”