Rushing in feels right, but holding back gives more

For The Baltimore Sun
We don't like to see kids struggle, but our attempts to make things easy stunt their growth.

A friend once shared a parable with me about a man watching a butterfly struggling to emerge from its cocoon. Trying to help, the man snipped the butterfly's cocoon.

The butterfly emerged easily, but it had a swollen body and shriveled wings. The man continued to watch it, expecting that any minute the wings would enlarge and expand enough to support the body. Neither happened. In fact, the butterfly spent the rest of its life crawling around. It was never able to fly.

Sometimes struggles are exactly what we need in our lives. Going through life with no obstacles would cripple us. Without challenges, we will never be as strong as we could have been, and we will never fly.

My friend's takeaway (which I think is spot on) was this: Our "kindness and haste" is really a mask for "control and impatience." We don't like to see those we love struggle, but our attempts to make things easy for them really just stunt their growth and maturity. Put down the scissors, she said. Let them beat their wings, then watch beauty emerge and take flight.

Change the word "man" in the little parable above to "mom" and the word "butterfly" to "child," and you are talking about me.

When toys are lost in the house, I always say things to my three kids like, "Children have to keep up with their own things." But then 10 seconds later, after so much of their whining, I always stop what I'm doing and look for that thing they can't find.

I tell them, "Sure, you can get down from the table after eating nothing I've fixed. But there will not be any snack before bed." But then when they say they're hungry later, I feel incapable of refusing them something to eat. I'm like a Mommy-zombie, headed for the kitchen. "Must. Feed. Offspring."

There's been so much written lately about the best way to praise kids to teach them about commitment and sticking with challenges and not giving up when things get hard.

But when my son says, "Look at my Lego tower, Mommy!" the first thing out of my mouth is, "That's an amazing tower! What a great builder you are! Awesome job!" I have a really hard time remembering that I'm supposed to be praising the effort, the process, the fact that he didn't give up the three times the tower fell, but kept going until he was done.

(And I have an even harder time remembering to uphold the rule that THEY are supposed to be the ones on all fours picking up the Legos when they're through.)

When thinking as early marrieds about what good things we wanted our future children to be, the adjective that came up most often between my husband and me was "self-sufficient."

I told a co-worker that once, and she said, "Well, I would think you'd want your children to be happy." To which I said, "If we help them become self-sufficient, and at some point in their lives they find themselves unhappy (which is bound to happen), then they will know how to figure out what to do to make themselves happy."

I felt really wise when I said that. Of course, I had no children then (which is when people are usually wisest about child-rearing).

Now I don't feel so wise.

In an Atlantic article last week, reporter Katherine Reynolds Lewis interviewed philosopher and psychologist Alison Gopnik about her new book, "The Gardener and the Carpenter." Gopnik says we should "stop trying to mold children into adults with some desirable mix of characteristics, the way a carpenter might build a cabinet from a set of plans. Instead, we adults should model ourselves on gardeners, who create a nurturing ecosystem for children to flourish, but accept our limited ability to control or even predict the outcome of."

I agree with that, totally. But there's still so much gray area with parenting. If we don't have an end goal in mind — in this case, self-sufficiency — then aren't we just parenting in a vacuum?

I don't know the answer, but I know I want my children to fly. Some day, I hope to learn better when to wield — and withhold — my scissors.

Tanika Davis is a former Baltimore Sun reporter who now works as vice president at a communications firm. She and her husband have twin 6-year-old sons, a 4-year-old daughter, a perpetually messy house and rapidly appearing gray hairs. She also needs a nap. She can be reached at tanika@thehatchergroup.com. Her column appears monthly.

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