September 2006
Some Kind of Help

by Annie Fox, M.Ed

When parents take over, kids miss opportunities to figure things out for themselves.
Some Kind of Help

“Mom, I don’t get this homework!” Seventh grader wails. Devoted parent rushes to her side and… does what? What’s needed here? What kind of help will boost your student’s emerging sense of autonomy? What kind of help might have the opposite effect – keeping your young adolescent overly dependent on you?

Before I answer that, think back to your own childhood for a moment. Did your parents know your day-to-day assignments from each and every one of your middle school teachers? Mine sure didn’t because they didn’t need to. I understood that school was my responsibility. Like millions of other kids throughout our nation’s history, I did my homework to the best of my ability without parental prodding, checking, or handholding. Did I feel unloved because of their non-involvement? Not even close! My homework was one of the few corners of my life in which I was my own boss and I liked it that way.

Study timeYet many of today’s parents manage everything having to do with their tween’s school experience. Our intention is loving and well-meaning, but when parents take over, kids don’t readily develop organizational skills and the self-esteem that comes from being independent and responsible. They also miss opportunities to figure things out for themselves.

No parent sets out to teach kids that they’re incapable of doing things on their own. Nor do we want them to believe that in the real world there aren’t real consequences for making mistakes. And yet, when we consistently hover, fetch, carry, and oversee all school-related business for our middle and high school students, we:

  1. Reinforce irresponsible behavior. “My parents would never let me turn this paper in late and get a bad grade, so they’ll help me, even if it’s last minute and they swore they’d never do it again.” If you consistently clean up after your kids (literally and figuratively) they’ll figure that’s how the world works – no real consequences for breaking agreements, not delivering on promises, or failing to live up to expectations. You don’t want to teach them that!
  2. Send a message of no confidence. “I have to wake him up otherwise he’d be late every morning.” “I have to make her lunch because she can’t plan ahead.” If you do for kids beyond when they can (and should) be doing for themselves, you infantilize them. In turn, they may:
    • require just the bare minimum of themselves
    • remain immature and dependent
    • shy away from new challenges

In gratitude for your help, they might also silently resent you for “keeping them down” at the same time they’re whining for assistance. A bit schizoid? Sure, but they’re adolescents so it’s to be expected.

…some kind of help is the kind of help that helping’s all about.
And some kind of help is the kind of help we all can do without.

You love your kids. And you love helping them. And I’m not suggesting that you stop. But as this new school year begins, how about taking a hard look at the ways in which you’ve been helping them? If your help isn’t helping them become more independent, then you might want to reexamine your objectives. Is this about you being needed? Or is it about supporting your tween or teen in becoming a fully functioning adult?

Questioning life and homeworkAs for showing your love, there are still plenty of ways you can help as your son or daughter navigate through middle and high school. That’s in the realm of social/emotional development. In the 9 years I’ve been answering email from kids around the world, most of their questions fall into these main categories:

  • “Why am I different from everyone else?”
  • “How can I get someone to like me?”
  • “How can I help my friend in trouble?”
  • “How can I get my parents to see that I’m not a kid any more?”

Even the most independent tweens and teens want emotional support from trusted adults. What could be sweeter than you helping your child in this way? You might say, “I’d love to, but I’m not a therapist.” You don’t need to be one because you don’t have to “fix” every problem. Just to have you there, listening, and letting her know that what she’s feeling is “normal,” can be therapeutic for any teen. It will also strengthen your relationship. And wouldn’t that be helpful?

Helping in a helpful way

  1. Call a family meeting.
  2. Acknowledge that you may have been overly involved in certain aspects of school and that now that your teen has reached ___ grade, it’s time for him to be more in charge of himself because you know he can.
  3. Ask how he feels about that idea.
  4. Work together to set up guidelines for a new plan. All school related responsibilities don’t have to shift from you to him overnight. Make realistic changes. Expect temporary transitional setbacks. Just make sure that you keep moving in the direction of helping your child develop more independence. NOTE: Some kids may need reassurance that you are not going to disappear and that all of this “stuff” is going to be thrown in their lap. Give that reassurance and reiterate that now that she is a teen (or a middle school student) she’s growing up and that you will work with her to support her independence.
  5. AppreciationPut it into action immediately.
  6. Follow up, share progress, and talk about what the changes have meant to everyone involved.


Here’s wishing your kids a successful school year. May they have many opportunities to expand their academic skills, their friendships, and their in-born talents. And may you be appreciated for helping them.

In friendship,

Got a parent-teen problem you need help with?
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