Learned Helplessness

In my last post titled “To Be Or Not To Be…Just Like Our Parents“, I said I didn’t necessarily think that doing everything for our kids is a good idea.  I certainly don’t mind doing things for my kids like making their lunches to take to school and plenty of other things, but I am also conscious of the idea of learned helplessness where the kids become so dependent on their parents to do everything for them that they are not capable of making good decisions and doing things for themselves.  I watched my roommate my freshman year of college completely fall apart and almost fail out of school because her parents practically made every decision and did everything for her up to that point.  They even unpacked her things for her and decided where everything of hers including her furniture should go on the first day.  She had no idea how to manage her time and belongings and get things done.

There are things I wish I had done more at home before leaving for college like laundry and cleaning so that I was better at them once I needed to do them on my own.  I’m still not all that great at cooking, but then again, I wasn’t home much when my mom was making dinner, and it’s not a big interest of mine. Maybe it would be though if I was better at it.

When I helped in my son’s classroom and when I was teaching, I could sometimes tell which students had parents who sit with them through doing most if not all of their homework and are right there to help them figure everything out.  The problem I see with that is that the child doesn’t learn to think things through themselves and struggle with something for a bit before asking for help.  They are also being deprived of the opportunity to feel that sense of accomplishment and pride when they do figure it out on their own, which builds confidence.  It is these students who raise their hands as soon as they don’t understand something when working on class work to ask the teacher to re-explain it to them individually.  That makes the teacher’s job a whole lot harder and why my help was greatly appreciated.  Their homework then is also not a true reflection of their ability, and neither are their projects when parents do a lot of the work on them.

I know kids don’t like it much when they are asked to do things for themselves that they are used to someone else doing for them or when they are given new responsibilities, but hopefully they appreciate it down the road when they realize how many things they don’t need to rely on anyone else to do for them and how helpful they can be to others.  The people I know who are the most willing to do whatever needs to be done to help out without being asked are all people who were raised to do things for themselves and others at an early age.

A Wall Street Journal article from this week titled, “Why Children Need Chores” says that “giving children household chores at an early age helps to build a lasting sense of mastery, responsibility and self-reliance” and that “chores also teach children how to be empathetic and responsive to others’ needs.”  One study noted found that “young adults who began chores at ages 3 and 4 were more likely to have good relationships with family and friends, to achieve academic and early career success and to be self-sufficient, as compared with those who didn’t have chores or who started them as teens.”  Apparently, it is strong relationships that are a more reliable predictor of personal happiness than high achievement.  So it is not only important to teach children to be responsible for themselves but also give them that sense of connection and responsibility beyond themselves as well.

I think particularly with the youngest or an only child, it is sometimes hard to come to terms with the fact that they don’t need us as much as they used to, so it’s hard to give up some of the routines like giving them a bath and start encouraging them to do things for themselves.  While some people may think doing so many things for their children and helping them with everything is the best route because they are being so nurturing, they may actually be doing their children a disservice by not allowing them to learn how to figure things out, do things for themselves, and learn to help others as well.  I think there’s a delicate balance that needs to be found where we are doing enough for our kids so they feel loved and nurtured but not so much that they are too dependent on us for everything.


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