“You have to help me,” said Tyler, my 7-year old.
“No. I don’t,” I said.
“Yes, you do!” he demanded.
“No. I don’t,” I said. “You signed up for this thing. You can work on it. If you try and you’re having a hard time, I’ll help you, but I’m not helping you from the start. You have to try.”
The thing Tyler had signed up for was some bizarre straw maze challenge (or something like that) in which a child, using a piece of cardboard as a base, arranges straws into a maze through which a marble must navigate. Once the straw maze is laid down (by glue or tape or whatever) the child directs the marble by tilting the cardboard this way and that until it exits the maze. I believe the overall results are judged on the complexity or ingenuity of the maze and the time trials of each pass.
Eventually, Tyler got the hint. I wasn’t going to do this thing for him. And with that, he got down to work, eventually putting together a pretty nice maze. I was proud. Of course, on the day the project was due, when I got a gander at the efforts of his classmates, it was easy to see which had been done by children and which had been done by parents holding a PhD in engineering.
Tyler didn’t win the maze contest that day but, in my opinion, he won something larger by conquering whatever little challenges he bested sitting on the floor getting those straws to stick to that damn cardboard (very frustrating).
Every parent has seen this phenomenon. When it comes to class projects, children often aren’t competing against each other, but the parents, with some going so far as to feel that allowing their children to do their own work isn’t fair to their children. But it doesn’t stop with school. Today’s parents not only strive to shield their children from disappointment in the classroom but from any kind of effort at home or potential scrape on the playground.
Since when did a child falling down and getting bruised become a black mark on the parent? Once that was established, these bubble children started forgetting how to get back up on their own.
In, “The Gift of Failure” by Jessica Lahey (who spoke recently at our town’s high school), she writes, “EVERY TIME WE RESCUE, HOVER or otherwise save our children from a challenge, we send a very clear message: that we believe they are incompetent, incapable and unworthy of our trust. Further, we teach them to be dependent on us and thereby deny them the very education in competence we are put here on this earth to hand down.”
And here we come to the fundamental question: just what is the job of a parent? I have heard many say that it is to protect their children from harm. I, however, am of a different opinion. My job is not exclusively to protect my children from harm, but to coach them on how to deal with adversity. And, sometimes, that may mean allowing them to be exposed to potential physical harm (sports) or discomfort. For example, if Tyler doesn’t get a partner when the kids pair up at wrestling practice, it is very tempting for me to get a coach’s attention so he can address the situation, but I do much better if I allow my son to figure out either how to do that on his own or how to navigate the social complexities of, perhaps, asking two kids who’ve already paired up if he can join them.
So called “helicopter parenting” results in young adults who don’t really deserve that moniker. Having grown accustomed to constant intervention and rescue every time they encountered a hurt or challenge, they are in no condition to figure it out, push through or persevere — and perseverance is the most important indicator of success in life.
For your part, the managerial equivalent of helicopter parenting is, of course, micromanaging. This unfortunate method of leading has many of the same results — disengaged employees who stop thinking because you’ve indicated that’s your job. Employees who immediately come to you for the answers because you think you’ve got them all.
The bottom line is that as both parents at home and managers at work, we must set a direction, lay out some ground rules, and then allow those under our purview to make their way, to make their mistakes, and to figure out how to make good when things go awry. For both our children and employees, we cannot be there (and should not want to be there) to always pick up the pieces. It is better for our quality of life, and infinitely better for theirs, if we stand back, keep silent, and, with watch with pride as they turn failures into successes.