By far the biggest irony of being a parent is that, while it's human nature to want to feel needed, if we're doing our job as a mother or father, we have to empower our kids, at least on a certain level, to feel like they don't need us, to have the confidence to try and do for themselves. Since I'm still feeling parenthood out like the rest of us, I asked Nasiba Adilova, founder of The Tot, for some advice on how we can get kids to that point. She's built her entire company taking child-focused knowledge from a network of medical and psychology experts, journalists, nutritionists and other professionals.
The two big no-nos.
Adilova says she sees parents making the same two blunders pretty regularly.
"Modern life is so busy and this leads many overwhelmed parents to do everything for their kids to save time. They'll help them get dressed, tie their shoelaces, make their beds, tidy up their toys at the end of the day, and give them a bit too much help with their homework. These parents mean well, but they don't realize they're robbing their children of dozens of small opportunities to learn to be self-sufficient. Independence is very empowering! If they just took an extra 10 minutes a day to help kids learn to perform simple tasks on their own, they'd see their self-esteem grow before their very eyes.
"We also disempower our children when we don't allow them to make any decisions for themselves, such as which shoes to wear or what to eat for breakfast, and when we don't allow them to take any risks like climbing the tall play structure at the park. We need to give our kids some control over their lives and let them test their limits - under our watchful eye! - if we want them to develop a strong sense of self-worth."
3 foolproof strategies.
Grasping the two biggest errors from above, you have three key tools when it comes to empowering any child, according to Adilova.
Praise your children often (when it's warranted, of course) and resist the urge to criticize them. If you consistently tell your kids that they're smart, capable and determined, they'll come to believe it. Try not to point out things, such as 'Tommy is shy' or 'Ava isn't very good at math.' They'll come to believe these things that you say about them and they could become difficult traits to 'unlearn'. [...But at the same time], we definitely need to be careful not to over-praise our kids and treat them like little kings and queens who deserve anything they want. It all comes down to how you praise them - rather than telling them they're 'the best' and 'Mommy's little champion', tell them you're proud of them because they practiced really hard and kept trying until they succeeded.
Encourage your children to be independent. Teach them how to set the table, tie their laces and prepare their own breakfast. Autonomy is a cornerstone of self-esteem in both children and adults. This also includes encouraging them to take risks and learn from their mistakes. And when they do inevitably fail, gently push them to keep trying to help them build their perseverance and resilience.
Listen to your children. Ask them about their day over dinner and truly listen to what they have to say. Don't sweep any negative emotions under the carpet - if they know they can talk to you about anything and they feel supported, their confidence will grow.
Adilova adds that, just as parents can sometimes overpraise, they sometimes overindulge their kids, constantly buying them new things and giving in to every demand.
"The line is thin between empowerment and entitlement. Teach them to be grateful for what they have and to be generous with those who are less fortunate. Model kindness and empathy in your interactions with others and your children will follow suit. [...] If you teach them to be independent, resilient and empathetic from a young age, they'll very likely grow into confident and well-rounded adults."
The reality of the job
From my perspective, Adiolva's advice is pretty common sense. So then why is it so achingly, embarrassingly difficult for so many of us to handle? Because we're not just parents. We're human beings who by nature don't like conflict, want to be liked, love to feel in charge and to show off and, quite frankly, don't always know the answers. We also have this nasty predisposition to speak and do based on what we feel in the moment. (Thanks for nothing, reptilian brain.) All of those things make it easy to back down when we should stand firm, to fudge it and not take time.
But the reality of the job is that one mistake does not the whole cake bake. You can learn. If, in hindsight, you know you've screwed up, admit it. Start fresh every time. Your kids will see that you haven't stopped, that you're not giving up. In modeling that, you show your children exactly how to be the phoenix rising from the fire.