A Brief Parable About Overparenting

A child having their shoes tied by a parent.

I recently read this lovely little passage from Ryan Holiday’s The Daily Dad:

“There is a great story about a young Spartan woman, Gorgo, who would one day become queen. Despite her royal status, like all Spartans she was raised to be self-sufficient, with no frills or needless luxury.

So imagine Gorgo’s surprise when she witnessed a distinguished visitor to Sparta have his shoes put on by a servant. ‘Look, Father,’ she said innocently to her father, King Leonidas, ‘the stranger has no hands!’

Sadly, for some of us, it could just as easily be deduced that our kids have no hands. And no brains. We put on their clothes for them. We make their decisions. We clear the road in front like a snowplow. We hover like a helicopter, just in case something goes wrong. We do everything for them.

Then we wonder why they are helpless. We wonder why they have trouble with anxiety or low self-esteem. Confidence is something you earn. It comes from self-sufficiency. It comes from experience. When we coddle and baby them—when we take away their hands—we deprive them of these critical assets.”

At times, it might seem like your teenager has no prefrontal cortex. (The prefrontal cortex is where focused attention, emotional regulation, and long-term planning happen.) But the reality is that this critical part of their brain is just underdeveloped. (It won’t be done until they’re about 25.) There’s no shortcut to developing it, but there is a way to slow down the process: doing too much for them.

The brain is like a bunch of muscles, and the ones we don’t use regularly don’t get strong. If you do all the work your child’s prefrontal cortex should be doing, you’re not giving them a chance to build that mental muscle.

Yes, you’re better at planning and organizing. Of course you are; you’re an adult.

But your kids need to practice these skills, so don’t do all the heavy lifting for them. The struggle will make them stronger.

A middle school student thinking hard about how to spend their time

It’s hard to stop overparenting and give your kids the freedom to fail. It’s hard to change the habit of micromanaging, even when you know it’s not helping. It’s hard to resist the urge to rescue your kids when they’re about to fall on their faces. It’s hard, yes, but it’s also essential.

Executive function, responsibility, self-efficacy, wisdom. These things don’t just happen. They’re learned, grown, and earned through experience, strain, and painful failure. Your kids won’t develop these things until they have to, until life forces them to.

So practice stepping back and doing less for your kids – giving them room to develop the skills they’ll need to thrive as adults.

Otherwise, they might grow up to be as helpless as someone with no hands.

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