Give your kid more rope

I don’t know about you, but the temptation to rescue my child is very strong. For example, the other day I dropped off my five-year-old Fynn at school. There were four boys kicking a soccer-ball around. ‘Yay, I can play soccer,’ gasped my boy with raw enthusiasm

‘No, you can’t! It’s just the four of us who will play,’ chirped one of the boys, crushing Fynn’s confidence like a small-plant being stood upon.

What to do? I didn’t flinch. I yelped at this plant-trodding punk, ‘Hey you! Fynn WILL play!’

I was sure this would get Fynn into the game.

All it did was cause Fynn to cling to my leg.

‘Fynn. Go play! I spoke to that boy for you.’

He just clung more tightly.

Why didn’t it work? What had I just done?

It came clear upon reflection. In speaking to the boy on Fynn’s behalf, I had unwittingly communicated to Fynn that he couldn’t deal with the situation, that he needed a dad to come rescue him. Trying to help, I’d only stood upon his already downtrodden confidence.

The need to protect our kids from the challenges of life is a dangerous need.

Over-parenting can unwittingly wreck their ability to cope in adult life.

What happens to the kid who is overprotected by their parents?

I heard a tourist once say about South Africa, ‘It seems like you over-mother boys in this culture. I am amazed how many adult men are still emotionally and financially dependent on their parents.’

I quoted this to a friend of mine, not realizing I was throwing a hand-grenade into his interior life. In the weeks that followed, he fell into crisis, in part because he was going through a mid-life wish-wash of introspection, but also in part because it was true in his case — and he felt he had being paying for it his whole adult life, evidenced by a shying away from challenge, doubting himself at every turn.

There are some parents who seem to get this right.

I remember an author of parenting books telling me how he raised his three. ‘At a certain age, I gave all of my children pocket-money, and nothing else. They needed to buy all of their own clothes, sports equipment and fund their own hobbies and entertainment. If they blew it all on sweets, tough luck. They learnt the hard way to save for what they wanted. And the moment they finished studying, I told them to move out or start paying rent.’

I thought that was harsh, and I don’t know if Julie and I would do it quite like that, but when I looked at the well-adjusted, successful self-starters he’d raised, it made me take note.

People who are parented like this tend to get a head start on others. Think of Richard Branson. As a kid, he was dropped off by his parents on the other side of town and essentially instructed, ‘Make your way home, son. Work it out, make a plan, and look after yourself.’ As it turns out, Richard made his own way home, and then continued to make his own way into the music industry, airlines and a vast array of other pursuits.

I know a CEO of a fantastic company who says that his dad encouraged him to start a business as a teen. He decided to mow the neighbour’s lawns. He wrongly assumed that his dad would lend him his lawnmower. ‘No son, you can rent it from me — and buy your own fuel. That’s part of your business costs.’

Ouch. I could never be that cruel. But sometimes you have to be ‘cruel’ to be kind.

What we’re talking about is helping our kids grow up, deliberately moving them from a state of dependence to independence — through letting them make their own decisions, through letting them face life’s hardships and challenges without rescuing them.

In ‘Parenting with love and logic: teaching kids responsibility’, the authors Foster Cline and Jim Fay highlight three kinds of parenting styles that over-parent and ultimately undermine our children’s potential…

1. Helicopter Parents hover over and then rescue their children whenever trouble arises. They’re always pulling their children out of jams

2. Turbo-Attack Helicopter Parents, in their zeal to protect their young, swoop down like jet-powered AH-64 Apache attack helicopters on any person or agency they see as a threat to their child’s impeccable credentials. Pity the teacher who tries to give constructive feedback to such a parent about their child.

3. Drill Sergeant Parents feel that the more they bark and the more they control, the better their kids will be in the long run.

Is there a better kind of parenting? Yes, a friend of mine, Gavin Keller, headmaster of a trendsetting group of schools, in his presentation ‘Give them Rope’ calls them…

4. Belayer Parents. Keller explains, ‘In rock climbing, the climber relies on a belayer. The task of the belayer is to act as a secure base on the ground and hold the rope that is attached to the climber. As the climber goes on up the rock-face, he finds suitable crevices to anchor the rope that then hangs down to the belayer. Because the belayer watches carefully, fully aware of what the climber is doing, wise in the knowledge of rock climbing, he applies just the right amount of pressure to ensure that the climber is secure, but carefully releases sufficient rope — allowing the climber to take risks and explore alternative routes to achieve his goal. The success of the climber is dependent on the belayer. It is the security offered from below that frees the climber to unleash his astonishing potential and scramble to new and yet to be discovered heights’.

Though I don’t climb, the belayer idea is my favourite parenting analogy. It’s a style of parenting that…

  • incrementally creates space between you and your child, while still trying to keep them alive.
  • stays connected to your child, fully aware of what your child is going through.
  • increasingly frees your child to make most of their own decisions and carve out their own route.
  • grows your child’s confidence and skill levels bit by bit.
  • is more consultative, sometimes sharing wisdom but hesitant to tell your child what to do.

I am the first to admit parenting as a belayer is incredibly counter-intuitive. Every instinct in me wants to pull my kids out of every jam, confront everyone who makes their lives more difficult, and bark orders. I’d rather map out the precise journey up the rock-face for them, and — if they let me — summit the mountain for them.

But it’s not my life to live.

Precisely because I want my kid to succeed in life, especially as an adult when they will be climbing all sorts of life-threatening, success-hinging rock-faces without my belaying, I must give them a chance to make decisions and mistakes now. While the safety rope is still connected.


Originally published at The Dad Dude.