Picture the scene: Several 5 year olds are playing in the park. One of them thinks a toy/ball/whatever of his/hers has been unfairly taken by another. He/she starts to hit/attack the would-be thief. The parents are clustered at the edge of the play area, talking and laughing. The noise level from the group of children elevates and one parent looks around at the children screaming at each other. Her eyebrow goes up and she remarks that the kids are going at each other. Another parent, puffed up with his brand of wisdom says, “Let the kids work it out.”

If that isn’t the most god-awful stupid parenting advice, none beats it.

So, I decided that this parent, we’ll call him Jim, needs to learn a lesson. He needs to be the victim of his own “wisdom.” Let’s go back to last night: It’s 3 A.M. and Jim and his wife are sleeping. The doorbell rings. The police are at the door and they walk in right past him. They ignore his requests for information and proceed to search his house. He is pretty upset, frightened, and confused at this point. Next, they arrest him. He gets to the police station where his plea, “I want to speak to a lawyer,” is met with, “No, sir. You have to work it out.”

Not the same situation?

Wrong! It most certainly IS the same situation: Two people who don’t have a clue how to resolve a difficulty are left helpless, with no assistance, no advice, no TOOLS. One is 5 and needs adult guidance and one is 50 and needs legal guidance. No difference at all! Now, if the 50 year old were arguing with his friend about his video game and the two were rather angry at each other, then I agree, his wife would not be appropriate to interfere. That would be a good case of, “let them work it out.” Two adults ought to know how to resolve a simple dispute. The difference in that scenario and the two that I describe above is that in the playground case and the arrest case, the people involved, one 5 and one 50 were in over their heads. That’s why they needed guidance. That’s what parenting really is. It seems apparent to me and for the life of me, I can’t figure out why the adults don’t see that.

When Parents Should Step In And When They Shouldn’t

Maybe a good parenting question is: When to help and when to leave them alone? A better formulation would be: How do you know when the child/person should know what to do so you should leave him/her alone and how do you know when that person is in over his or her head? Here is an answer in five parts:
1. You, the parent, are responsible for teaching all social behavior the first time.
2. You then are responsible to coach the child on future occurrences of that kind of behavior as a way to prod his memory as to the original coaching idea.
3. As the child grows older and occurrences of this situation come up again, it is your job to wean yourself of helping/coaching so as to give more and more responsibility to the child for (a)recognizing the problem; (b)remembering that he once did have answers to it from the initial teaching and subsequent coaching; (c)correctly applying what he learned in the past to the present situation.
4. A point comes when it is actually good for the child to experience the (painful) outcome of his choices because he has already been coached numerous times and sometimes he must experience Life directly in order to learn. The parent steps fully away from the situation to let the child work it out herself.
5. It is always possible for you, the parent, to re-evaluate the rate at which you are either jumping in with the coaching too quickly or not quickly enough and change the level of help you are giving at any one time. As long as you re-evaluate this regularly, you are in a win-win situation. Even screwing up leads to a win, because the re-evaluation teaches you something and it allows your child to learn from the situation–and from your re-evaluation itself.

Let’s make the above rules concrete. Go back to the playground. The mother who cocked an eyebrow at the mess, let’s call her Amanda, turns to Jim and says, “That’s ridiculous. They don’t know how to work it out themselves–other than fighting, and that’s not a smart choice in my book.” She proceeds over to the children, gets down at eye level, speaks quietly, and addresses the group with, “What’s going on here?” Her voice is not blaming, just fact-finding. Little Nicole’s arms are crossed and her chest is puffed out. Pointing at Jennifer, she says aggressively, “I had the ball and she took it! She just took it out of my arms! Make her give it back!”

Help Children Get Clear On What The Problem Is

Looking at Jennifer, Amanda (Nicole’s mom) asks: “Is that your version of things?” Heaving with righteous indignation, Jennifer replies: “That’s how they do it on tv! That’s the way to play football! They knock each other down for the ball! Or they take it somehow.” Amanda was a little stumped here, because, like me, she knows nothing about football. Sometimes parents have to be creative. “Is that what you were playing, Jennifer, football?” “Yes!” came the reply. Turning to Nicole, she asks, “Did you know you were playing football?” “Well…” Apparently, Nicole is not sure. To Jennifer, she asks, “Did you gals agree on the RULES before you started?” Now, Jennifer is looking at the ground. She is confused. She thought she did. To Nicole: “What are the rules for football?” Nicole shrugs. “Well, girls,” Amanda concludes, “when you play a sport, you have to agree on the rules before you start. Okay?”

The girls have simmered down. One reason is that someone validated their feelings. They were both upset and they both felt justified. Someone listened to their stories. Do you notice that Amanda didn’t feel the need to have one of the girls be right and one wrong? It absolutely wasn’t necessary. The problem was the girls hadn’t communicated to each other the groundrules of their game. (Doesn’t this sound familiar?) So, instead of calling it one way or the other, she does, in the end, let them settle their differences themselves with the new, and very important TOOL at hand of creating and agreeing on the rules of the game. Okay, so that was Rule one from my list above. Let’s go on.

The girls are deep in excited conversation; they’ve made up some rules and the game proceeds. Fifteen minutes later, there is some screaming from their area again. With a sigh, Amanda approaches. “What’s going on this time?” she asks. Well, the girls have made up the rules and one of them is that you can’t run with the ball over that line (imagine a line, please) and there is a dispute over whether or not Nicole crossed it. She says she didn’t and Jennifer says she did. There are other children around, but nobody saw the move. Here’s my question to you, readers: Are we up to Rule 2, coaching? Answer: No. This is a new situation, totally different. They did their job right; they made rules. They agreed on the rules. But they couldn’t agree on a call. That’s a new case. Further, they seem to need to scream about every disagreement (as five-year-olds tend to do).

Natural Consequences Are Powerful

Amanda patiently discusses with the girls their options when they can’t agree on a call: Try it again and if they still can’t agree and all they have about the situation is bad feelings, maybe it’s time they left the playground and went home for dinner or quiet time. Or, take turns giving disputed calls to each other–that’s a new rule they can agree on, or not. Or, give up right now because they’ve just had a bad day. Again, she quickly leaves. Glancing surreptitiously over her shoulder, she is pleased to see that the girls are playing nicely. She figures that the suggestion that maybe they’ve played enough for one day has “inspired” them to find a way to get along, another good lesson on the playground. Grinning to herself, she returns to adult company to hear the confusing story that Jim has to tell about his arrest last night.

As it turns out, the search warrant had the wrong address. The police actually broke into the wrong house and arrested the wrong person. Luckily, in his own case, Jim did not adhere to the maxim, “let him figure it out.” Instead, first thing in the morning, he called an attorney. Boy, will the city have an interesting suit on its hands. Could Jim have done that himself? Nope. That’s what lawyers are for.

Part Of Parenting Is Coaching

The next day, Nicole and another friend, Tim, are playing quietly at some game in the family room. Amanda hears some unpleasant noises and investigates. Nicole looks up at her, about to complain. Now comes the coaching part. “We just had something like this yesterday,” Amanda reminds. “What should you two be doing first?” “Oh, yeah,” Nicole sighs. “Make rules.” She turns to Tim and explains that they never agreed to the rules of their game. Tim looks at her, takes a deep breath, and asks her what rules are. Amanda withdraws. Mission accomplished.

So, to some extent, it is true that parents must give less and less help or else children won’t learn. But first they must have the tools to work with. And those come from the parents. At 15, when Nicole organizes a school production, she is clear about assigning jobs to the students in the play, she has an agenda in her own mind, she’s cleared it all with the administration. She does not need further coaching; she hasn’t in years. That would be an example of parenting Rule 3, backing out of coaching. However, if she messes up now, given her thorough understanding of the concept, that would not be a moment for parental intervention; she must experience life on its own terms or she will not grow up, which is Rule 4.

The Right Time For Parents To Back Off

Sure enough, she does make a mistake. (Who wouldn’t?) By being a little too rule-bound, she assigns a girl a part that the girl doesn’t like. That girl, Nancy, isn’t a straightforward person and goes behind Nicole’s back to complain. By the time Nicole hears about it, it has become a mess, with rumors and bad feelings all around. Not a pleasant moment. Should her mother interfere? Well, possibly. Depends how. Amanda notices that Nicole, usually bright and happy, is kind of distracted and on edge. When two weeks go by with more of the same, Amanda ventures, “Is everything okay?” This would be an example of Rule 5, kind of re-entering where she had already decided to back out. She is carefully moving between leaving Nicole to figure things out for herself and trying to see if she can add a bit of adult wisdom to the mix, if it would help. Nicole informs her of the mess at school. Listening, Amanda realizes that sometimes even adults couldn’t have done it better. “Would you do anything differently now if you could start over?” She asks. “Well,” Nicole ventures, “I’d have asked Nancy first what part she wanted. I didn’t know how insulted she would be with what I gave her.” “So,” Amanda asks, “What can you do now?” Nicole is lost in thought. Slowly, she gets up and heads to her room–and her phone. “Thanks, mom,” she says as she leaves the warm kitchen.

Indeed, Nicole has learned to solve her own problems. She’s a thinker! Great kid, huh? And why? — All because her parents knew the most important parenting rule: that kids need the tools to learn how to solve their problems first before you can expect them to solve them. This isn’t easy. It takes tact and respect. It takes the right mix of helping and backing off. Parenting is an art.

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