Learned Helplessness Vs. Learned Resilience: What You Can Do To Foster Strength And Independence


Parenting is a lot like walking on a tight rope. It is so easy to go over to one side or the other, and so hard to balance. Protecting our children is instinctive, yet our goal is to raise independent adults. We dread letting them go out to the world, but we must let them go out to the world. How can we and our children thrive within this kind of tension? Let's see...

Have you heard the stories of elementary school kids in the 1950s and 60s that walked to school alone? How about children who were sent to the grocery store with their bicycle and some cash? Would you let your children ride their bikes across your town to go visit a friend? I bet not. Most young parents I know wouldn't even consider allowing this.


In this day and time when we hear all the bad news from all over the world, we have a generation of very nervous parents. It is completely understandable that we keep our children close by and well supervised at all times.


I have a friend who is a middle school principal and she says that the children born during the first five years following September 11, 2001 had the most nervous parents she has ever met. I get it. It was that event that, more than any other, showed us how vulnerable we are and how it is impossible to protect our children from real danger. We live in a dangerous world. Humans have always lived in a dangerous world. There were generations that denied this danger, but it has always existed. We respond by protecting our children.


Yet here is the dichotomy: we must protect our children while helping them develop independence and competence so that they can live out from under our protection. Yikes. Talk about a balancing act. How is this even possible? Protecting yet letting go...it even sounds dangerous. How can we let them go? By teaching them to grow, A little at a time.


Just like everything else about creating a Harbor Home, raising independent, self reliant, resilient children is a long term project that does not happen by accident. It is a one step at a time assignment that produces gradual results; with the occasional spurt of forward progress. Resilience is learned. So is helplessness. You choose which you want for your children by what you encourage. Let's look for a minute at the choices.

  1. Let me help vs. You can do it If your child can do it, let them do it. Even if it takes a little longer. Get in the car with enough time for them to fasten their own car seat harness. Get dressed in time for them to put on their own shoes. Allow the extra time necessary for your child put their own breakfast dish in the sink, carry their own bag, button their own jacket, or wash their own face. This is learned resilience. I've seen children stand like dolls while they were dressed and fastened into safety seats when they were beyond capable of doing it themselves. This is learned helplessness, and it doesn't do your children any favors. It saves time, but with long term costs.

  2. Lightly supervised independence vs. constant hand holding Can your child reach your mailbox? Is it in a neighborhood cluster or at the end of your driveway? Let your child get the mail by themselves. Let them do this as young as possible. Four or so. You watch from a distance, but let them go and retrieve these vital pieces of paper for the family. When they navigate it successfully make sure that you tell them how much you appreciate them doing that for the family. They can be in charge of feeding their pet or watering plants or any number of small tasks that are useful. The scope of the tasks grow with time, but the key is watching from a distance so that they have some independence

  3. A bit further each time vs. never leave my side Give your child a grocery cart and a short list of groceries to pick up on one aisle while you are on another. Set up a meeting place and time, have a danger signal, whatever parameters you need for your situation. A typically developing eight year old should have no trouble with this. It gives them confidence as well as competence. As always, express pride and appreciation for their work to help take care of the family. This is not freely roaming the big box store. This is a specific, necessary task that they complete in a set period of time. Your child will begin to develop the sense of independence that they will need later while remaining safe.

  4. Take pride in your children's ability to do things for themselves In a generation that tends to have very few children, it is tempting to keep them little and dependent for as long as possible. We know that the time we have is very short. The problem is that children are maturing later with fewer life skills and initiative. We can and should give our children the freedom to grow away from us as much as they can while still loving and encouraging and being their enthusiastic guides who are always there.

In Japan, very young are sent on errands away from home regularly. That culture puts a high value on raising children that are self motivated and competent. There is even a popular television program called "My First Errand" where TV cameras follow little children as they make their first steps into the world without their parents. You can find this on YouTube. It is pretty funny. The children are adorable and sometimes so funny I laugh out loud. This program shows the main difference between Japanese and American parenting. It's interesting.


I don't think that parents in the US are quite ready to give this level of independence to their children, but we need to be purposeful about teaching resilience over helplessness when our children are young. Build their sense of self and help them to find their place in the family and the community. It is a balancing act: find your balance and help your children shine like stars! Give them the gift of strength and courage and ability. Teach them well.




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