After three decades working with thousands of kids at camp, and more than twenty years parenting my own five, I’ve learned that doing LESS often makes me a more effective parent. Many of the recent best-selling parenting books share this same message:
Stop doing your kids’ homework!
Let them walk (or ride their bike) to school by themselves!
Stop making calls for them!
Make them do chores!
Have them manage their own money!
I’m a huge believer in being a hands-on, nurturing parent, and the younger kids are, the more they need our moment-to-moment care and assistance. But there comes a time (and it’s younger than most parents might think) that we need to step back, do LESS for our kids, and let them do MORE for themselves.
With my youngest now 13, I’ve definitely reached the “less is more” phase of parenting, so I thought I’d share with you 10 ways I’m doing less for my kids.
First, I need to give a disclaimer for those who don’t know me: I’m a big talker, big doer kind of person. I love nothing better than getting many things accomplished quickly (and checking them off my ever-growing to do list). So, naturally, my parenting over the years has reflected my personality. I love talking to my kids about important things, showing them how to do stuff, and enjoying activities with them. But I also have trouble yielding control; all too often, I have stepped in to measure the flour “the right way” or re-write the math problem on graph paper (the way it should be done, of course!). I have a long history of doing something myself, my way, rather than suffering through the patience needed to let my kids do it themselves, their way.
Case in point: Tuesday morning is trash day at our house. We live in the country, and our trash bins are ½ mile away, inside our gate by the road. Thus, “taking the trash out” is more complicated for us than it is for most families. The kids will often take the bins from the gate to the road, but my husband usually breaks down the cardboard boxes, loads up the trash and recycling, and drives it all to the bins.
Monday, my husband was making dinner, and I suggested the boys and I take care of the trash. I got them started and told them to let me know when they had the trunk loaded, then I would drive them to the bins. Back in the kitchen, my husband and I marveled at how one son took a full 10 minutes to cut up a large box. He seemed to enjoy using the knife to saw the box into little pieces. “I just swipe it once,” my husband said, “it takes 30 seconds.”
But the job was getting done, and our boys even took breaks to jump and grasp the basketball hoop; they were having some fun together, which doesn’t happen often around here because of the “great divide” between ages 13 and 16. Fifteen minutes later, with boxes strewn about the driveway, they came to tell me they were ready. “Put the boxes in the back of the car,” I told them, “and I will drive you down.”
There was some slow moving, some wavering, some absentminded shuffling. I know why. Normally, my husband and I, who are both “doers” to the extreme, would quickly load boxes, with the boys trailing behind to contribute one or two to the pile.
“Just be patient,” I told myself. We watched as they finally finished loading, then I drove them to the bins, which they filled and hauled to the road. The whole process took probably 30 minutes, three times as long as my efficient husband, but it was well worth the extra time. And while they worked, I came up with all the other things I can do less of to be a better parent.
#1 Less talking
Especially with my boys, I talk too much. They get in the car after school or sports, and I pepper them with questions, to which I get some very unrewarding replies. But I’ve found, when I shut my mouth, they occasionally pipe up with a story or something important. When I talk less, and drive more in silence, they end up talking more.
#2 Less laundry
I’ve long been a proponent of kids doing their own laundry, and for the past four years, I’ve only washed and folded my own clothes and household laundry (sheets, towels, dish rags). Everyone here does their own laundry. Less laundry for me means my kids are all competent at doing their own, well before they leave for college and adult life. A win-win for sure!
#3 Less cooking
This morning, I found my 13-year-old washing a pan after cooking and eating some eggs for breakfast. Now, this is not a normal situation in our house, because said 13-year-old enjoys sleeping in to the last possible moment. But apparently my husband challenged him last night to get up a bit earlier so that he wouldn’t be rushed getting off to school. He met the challenge, and I could tell he felt great about doing something for himself. All kids, I think, should help with meal prep and cook some basic dinners for the family. Washing lettuce for salads, chopping vegetables, and browning meat for tacos are all activities I do less of these days thanks to the budding chefs in my home.
#4 Less stepping in and correcting, doing it “my way”
This one is really hard for me (as you read in my disclaimer above), but I’m convinced it’s something I need to work on. I need to be less concerned about things getting done my way and more concerned about my kids figuring stuff out without me hovering over them.
#5 Less bustling around doing things for my kids
Whenever I find myself doing a bunch of household chores and tasks while my kids play video games, I need to STOP and figure out what they can help with. “Serving” our children like this leads them to become the type of employees companies DO NOT want. Believe me, I know this from our summer camp. The counselors who are self-starters and hard workers are the best employees and a pleasure to work with. And the ones who seem to always be waiting for Mom to step in and fix it, clean it, or finish it are painful to work with. I need to do less so that my kids will be the kind of adults who do more.
#6 Less “helping” with homework
I’ve always loved school and reading and all aspects of the whole process. I love binders, dividers, and assignments. I literally have to sit on my hands to keep from picking up a pile of disheveled papers, 3-hole punching them, and arranging them in a binder with tabbed dividers. But, my kids are doing fine in school and they only occasionally forget or lose an assignment. The occasional lost page is good for them, because they learn quickly not to do it again. In the area of homework, less helping is better.
#7 Fewer rewards and gifts
I was talking to a babysitter who watches a 4-year-old regularly. This little girl gets gifts constantly for doing things that should just be expected of any child her age. Our kids do not need gifts for doing things that are expected of them. In fact, we do our kids a huge disservice by rewarding them for things that should become intrinsically satisfying. The reward for a good grade should not be money! In fact, giving rewards decreases the natural feeling of accomplishment and pride that comes from a job well done and the resuling intrinsic motivation. Nobody will give our kids stars and bonuses just for doing what they are supposed to do, so we shouldn’t either. Fun gifts and encouraging notes just because we love them are far better than a gift tied to something they did.
#8 Less making kids and their schedules the center of everything
Martyrdom parenting, where we focus our entire existence on our kids’ happiness, is ridiculous. Not only is it making us stressed and unhappy, it’s not good for them. Our kids should not feel that the world, or our family, revolves around them. We parents need our own hobbies and interests, and there needs to be a balance in the family schedule of how we spend our time. The extreme example (one I know will upset many parents) is certain club sports, which require that the family’s entire calendar—including most weekends—revolve around one child’s sport. Vacations and weekends, I think, need to be spent doing things the whole family enjoys. I love watching my kids play sports, but I’m not spending my whole life doing only that.
#9 Less structuring of play
Kids need to play and figure out what to do with friends, so we shouldn’t feel compelled to haul them to a trampoline park or mini golf course just so they can have “something to do.” Let them use their imaginations more and your time (and gasoline) less. Learning to entertain themselves and spend time with friends are important life skills, and if you’re like me, you have a garage full of stuff. Open the doors, remind your kids where that stuff is, and let them figure out what to do next.
#10 Fewer spectator comments
Our coaching from the sidelines does not help our kids. Let them play. Let their coach do the coaching. We need to be quiet except for saying positive, encouraging things to our budding athletes. They will appreciate it.
So, there you have it: the things I think we parents can do less of to help our kids be more competent. As an added bonus to our doing less for our kids, our days will be less stressful and more enjoyable. And being less stressed also makes us a more effective parent.
Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes
How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success
The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed
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