The father of a 4-year-old seemed uncomfortable with the microphone. But he was concerned enough to voice his question before an audience of 60 at the parenting seminar, “Raising a Confident Kid ,”part of a series offered at Nemours/Alfred I. DuPont Hospital for Children.
Growing Together: “Raising a Confident Kid”
Growing Together: “Raising a Confident Kid”
View the full seminar at A.I DuPont Hospital for Children here in three segments.
How soon, he wondered, was too soon to worry about what he saw as a lack of self-confidence? “He feels completely intimidated by new situations,” the father said of his son. “I know how many times in my life I was stopped from doing something by a lack of confidence.”
His worry echoes society’s expectations, said Dr. Vanessa Vigilante, a clinical pediatric psychologist, who with Debra Moffitt, editor of KidsHealth.org, were presenters.
“Success in our society is networking. ‘Oh, my gosh, will he meet enough people?’ You need to manage some of that anxiety and be respectful of a child’s feelings,” she said.
“Management” in part means controlling parental response. It’s saying, “That’s unfortunate” when a child loses a part in a play, instead of “Try harder” or “It’s all for the best,” Vigilante said.
For some parents, management involves a hands-on approach. Seminar attendee Cheryl Blevins of Claymont unabashedly acknowledges typing her 13-year-old daughter’s reports, and going through the girl’s backpack each morning to make sure papers are in the “proper” folder. “If they’re not, the helicopter lands,” she said, referring to a parent’s need to “hover” and pay attention to the child’s experiences and issues.
A few helicopter parents take it further, writing essays for children so they get that A and calling teachers to complain when they don’t. And the micro-management may not stop when the child is 18. In a Michigan State University survey of employers, nearly one-third said a parent had submitted a son or daughter’s resume and 4 percent said a parent had shown up at an interview.
To the child, such actions speak volumes. Not only does the child expect to be championed, but he or she also may lack confidence and self-esteem. “The underlying assumption is that they are incompetent and not capable,” said Dr. Lani Nelson-Zlupko, a North Wilmington counselor who speaks on parenting issues. “We need parents to understand that it’s their job to advise and empower.”
An eye on the future
These days, many parents come from a place of fear, Nelson-Zlupko said. They’re worried their children will grow up and blame inadequacies or mental health issues on them. And it’s easy to see why. In psychoanalysis’ early days, moms and dad were often considered the crux of problems.
Parenting books, which support various models, apply additional pressure. Parents want children to “turn out well,” Nelson-Zlupko said. But what does that mean?
To some, it means that children happily meet society’s expectations. They have friends, they’re attractive and they do well in sports and at school. “At some level, parents are probably meeting their own needs rather than tuning in carefully enough to what their children need,” said Pat Tanner Nelson, extension family and human development specialist and professor at the University of Delaware.
In the quest to have the child succeed — at sports, academics and with friends — parents micro-manage the child’s activities. And their hovering doesn’t stop as the child grows up. Consider the 22-year-old employee written up for repeatedly being 30 to 45 minutes late for work. “Finally, I told her that if she was late again, she’d be fired,” the manager said. When she was 30 minutes late the next day, she was sent packing. Then her mother called. “She told me it was her fault because she forgot to wake up her daughter that morning,” the manager said. The girl is not 6, he told the mother. “She needed an alarm clock.”
Some would say her mother needed a reality check. A responsible, self-sufficient adult is a better definition of “turning out well,” Nelson-Zlupko said. “It doesn’t mean children won’t ever suffer,” she said. It means they learned coping skills in childhood so they can handle adversity as adults. The goal is to make them “hearty and resistant,” she said.
But how do you do that without hovering? When is it OK to stand back?
Teach them to fish
When children are small, parents must be attuned to their needs. “As kids grow…parents have to gauge when to back off and allow the child to self-direct,” Tanner Nelson said. Allow the child to communicate what he or she needs from you. Invite, explore and guide as opposed to doing and telling, Nelson-Zlupko said.
While children are still being nurtured at home is the ideal time for them to experience failure, which serves as practice for the future, Tanner Nelson said. Provide the appropriate feedback. Instead of focusing on the child’s failure to win the class election, focus on the high number of votes the child garnered.
Be genuine when the child succeeds at something. “Real confidence comes from true achievement, not empty praise,” said Debra Moffitt, co-presenter at the Nemours seminar. Along with offering praise for the A, praise the child for accomplishing such self-sufficient tasks as getting dressed alone, making lunch, making the bed or doing laundry. Guide them around obstacles when they do need help. “The litmus test is whether or not they’re empowered or less empowered,” Nelson-Zlupko said. “Do they feel babied or infantilized by your interaction?”
A recruiter, for instance, recalls the new graduate who came in for an administrative job. Afterward, the girl’s mother followed up—repeatedly. When the recruiter did call the grad, the grad seemed embarrassed. “After that, my calls went unreturned,” the recruiter said. “It seemed like her mother created more insecurity.”
Children will fail. The key is to give them the coping skills to overcome failure and move on rather than let it chip at their self-confidence, the Nemours speakers said.
Tell them: “I will give you everything I feel responsible for giving you to prepare you for the world,” Nelson-Zlupko said. “What is it you need? Who do you need to help you? Who are the best people to bring around the table for you?”
The goal it to create a self-sufficient human being, Moffitt said. “It’s tough, but we have to let them take the wheel at some point.”