Despite having some decent skill sets, I still don’t know how to do a lot of things. I don’t really know how to mow the lawn. I only feel comfortable using the basic buttons on the remote control. I admit I don’t make very good coffee. I could go on. In my family, we tend to own those tasks we are already good at. For example, my young adult son still lives at home. One of his contributions to the household is mowing our giant lawn. Part of the assignment is about his skill. It is true he’s better at grass and I’m better at flowers. However, while I have decades of experience with flowers, most of my lack in the lawn department is because I have never really had to do it. No wonder I am no good at it!
When I think about my own adulting journey, the scariest tasks I faced were “firsts” I couldn’t have experienced in advance, like buying my first car, signing a first mortgage, and parenting my first child. On the other hand, I had the most confidence in things I was encouraged to try on my own early on…managing my own bank account, experimenting in the garden, and traveling independently. My parents trained, coached, and stepped away. Sure, I made some mistakes but I believe I became a more responsible adult because I was given responsibility.
How often do we try to do things for our young adult children because we will make fewer mistakes than they would, could save time by doing it ourselves, or even because their dependence makes us feel needed? Have we considered that no matter our good intentions, when we do something for them they could do themselves, we may be cheating them out of an important opportunity? I learned from experience that short-cutting skill building can lead to a crisis later.
My daughter’s thirteenth birthday started as a disaster. What I anticipated as an exciting life milestone, felt like a crisis moment to her. Through tears she stammered, “I don’t want to be thirteen! I am not ready to grow up. I DON’T KNOW HOW TO DO THINGS!” Of course I was thinking we had plenty of time to become an adult but for my natural planner, the angst was real. So, we talked through her fears and made a training schedule together. We started with a list of simple skills like shopping for and cooking our favorite meals, doing all her own laundry, and learning to use tools. Conversations led us to add a range of spiritual and physical challenges. We ended up with a goal of accomplishing 13 selected tasks while she was 13 and celebrating those achievements before her next birthday. She trained for a marathon bike ride, visited a range of churches to learn about different worship styles, built a bookshelf with her dad, and hosted a dinner party for eight with the help of a teen friend. I didn’t just watch her skill sets grow. I learned to be more comfortable watching her face challenges because I saw her growing in confidence, independence, and responsibility.
I’m not saying we got it all right. We’ve all heard the term “Helicopter Parents.” I admit I still find it easy to grab the controls of my own personal helicopter even though flying a plane is not one of my skills! It is tempting to hover over our children so we can dive in for the rescue when we see distress, but is that really going to be helpful in the long run? As part of my role as an assistant dean at Northwestern, I still see well-meaning college parents headed down that path. It’s not unusual for me to take a call from parents with questions about the registration process, their children’s grades, or a campus policy. In some cases, it is information FERPA laws prevents me from providing. In most cases, it would still give the student more ownership if they placed the call themselves.
In a 2016 piece for the Pittsburgh Mom’s Blog, Karen Fancher highlighted new labels for over-involved moms and dads. “Lawnmower Parents” were characterized as those who move out ahead of their children to remove obstacles, eliminate inconvenience, and minimize discomfort. Fancher cited other styles of parenting including “Snowplow Parents” “and “Curling Parents” who, like Olympic curlers, scurry ahead to create a smooth path for their student to land in a predetermined trajectory. I guess it’s a good thing I don’t do the mowing, haven’t learned how to use a snowplow, and am not an Olympic athlete! While the images might bring a chuckle, this type of parenting can be more harmful than helpful. The ability to navigate challenges, cope with disappointment, deal effectively with annoyances, make independent decisions, and find personal motivation can be inadvertently stunted. Worse yet, we could alienate our student, sending the message that he or she isn’t good enough to accomplish things independently.
In many ways, my daughter led the way on a transition in my parenting. Her thirteenth birthday shook me out of my caretaker role and pushed me into coaching mode. It became clear that in most cases, the best way to help her succeed was for me to stay on the sidelines. I can offer coaching when she asks for guidance and trust even if mistakes are made, she’ll learn from them. Honestly, her track record was excellent. She only made a few questionable choices like the car she bought without asking for help. The first time I saw it, I had legitimate questions what the rope and duct tape were holding together and how many hail storms it had endured! She called it her version of theft protection. I’ll give her this…she did drive that car for nearly two years before it gave up on her and she learned a lot about both car maintenance and seeking counsel on the next car purchase.
Consider natural opportunities for skill building when your student is home for the holidays:
- Have a cooking class. Roasting a turkey, making a pie crust look lovely, and knowing the secret ingredient in grandma’s “pink stuff” are confidence builders.
- Do not offer to do your student’s laundry. Instead, ask for help on yours or offer lessons on folding and ironing.
- Provide telephone numbers but ask your student to make their own catch up dentist/doctor appointments over the break and ask them to go independently (you can make arrangements to be billed if necessary).
- Schedule a meeting to review second semester finances and your student’s budgeting plan.
- Coach your student on how to navigate taxes on their own this year.
- Ask your student to do routine checks/maintenance on their car or a family car over the break. If you’re due for an oil change and use a service, prep them on the routine, then have them take the car in.
Yes, we will be witness to our college students’ struggles and may even feel uncomfortable with their choices in solving problems but we aren’t helping them get ahead when we get out ahead of them. When we can put away our parenting lawn mowers and work on our sideline skills instead, we are helping our students build the confidence to handle future challenges with independence and grace. Remembering that a lawnmower in Minnesota does no good in December might be a good place to start!