Kathi Whitten, LCSW - Individual, Couple & Family Psychotherapy
There’s a saying, “Give a man a fish and you’ve fed him for a day; teach him how to fish and you’ve fed him for a lifetime.”  Which begs the question: how do we always know if we are teaching others to “feed” themselves or just handing them something that temporarily helps them, but prevents their learning how to take on the challenges of life for themselves?

This is a common problem in families, as parents often wrestle with the decision of whether to do something for their child or wait and watch, as the child learns to handle a new challenge alone or with minimal assistance.  There is often a fine line between choosing to help or hold back from doing so.

If, for instance, a child is learning to tie her shoes, someone has to help her by demonstrating how to do it a few times, then working with her as she gradually figures out how to create a bow. That’s really a good metaphor for any time we are teaching something. We need to demonstrate by our own actions how something is accomplished, then be available to guide the other as they try it for themselves, followed by standing back and cheering them on as they take over doing it. This learning process, by the way, is how we all gain confidence.

Still, it can be tricky to know how to handle many situations. Parents of teens have been known to do such things as pay fines for kids who get a speeding ticket, believing that they are doing their child a favor. But they are not—because someone old enough to drive should be responsible enough to follow the law in the first place, and handle the consequences—no matter how difficult, if they make a choice to disregard the rules.

Parents err if they write excuse notes for kids who skip school or don’t do homework, (or worse, do the homework for their child).  But, if a child is truly struggling to handle schoolwork, it sends a message of caring to your child and respect to the teachers if you and your child go and talk to the teacher and outline a reasonable remedial solution—whether it is you helping your child gradually gain mastery of a subject or having the teacher or a tutor do so.

Our job as parents is not to assure ourselves that our kids get an easy path through life (though we wish we could do that) so much as to ensure that they gradually, with our loving support, learn to handle challenges and take on the responsibilities of meeting the world when they are on their own.

At times it can be difficult to avoid getting caught in patterns of doing too much for your kids. If this is happening in your family, consider family therapy to help re-establish guidelines that can help you know how much “help” to provide your kids.

Copyright Kathi Whitten 2008