The term “over-functioning parent” is relatively new to our daily language but has been around for a long time. It’s a euphemism for the mom or dad who is overactive during their kid’s childhood… forgetting they’re raising a future adult. We adults have been guilty of over-functioning, even if we’re not parents.
You and I make up a generation of adults who want to provide a safe, happy life with positive self-esteem for today’s young people. The problem is, we think we can do this by removing struggles from their life. In reality, it’s just not true.
When we eliminate challenges and difficulties from their lives, kids are conditioned to give up easily without trying.
When we, as adults, intervene and ease the struggle from our kids’ lives, we actually create struggles for them later.
Research from the University of Mary Washington reveals that when parents intervene too much in their children’s lives, it handicaps them from “getting along with others.” Additionally, the study reports the children are prone to become depressed, feel less competent to manage life, and live less satisfied lives.
How could this be? Consider what your child experiences during adolescence. They naturally enter a season where they desire more autonomy. It is normal for them to want to spread their wings, try out their skills and find where they belong. In fact, it would be strange if they didn’t experience this yearning. When we try to help them by removing any struggles, we emasculate them. We unwittingly deem them incompetent. After all, they need our help.
Truth be told, parents must assess their level of intervention and involvement in their child’s life as they age. Maturity doesn’t’ happen automatically — we must let them mature. We can both stunt it and foster it. Because a child’s need for autonomy increases with time, parents must adapt and adjust their level of control and involvement as kids strive to become independent young adults.
When our children were young, my wife and I found ourselves picking up their toys for them, putting their clothes away in the closet and even fetching a ball that rolled away when they were fully capable of retrieving the ball themselves. We weren’t noticing the patterns we were laying.
As we became aware, we may have looked uncaring to onlookers at first. But we knew that we had to condition our kids to expect to get the ball for themselves, as well as put their clothes and toys away. In fact, preparing them to do this was a superior method for demonstrating our care and concern for them: We were building an expectation for and an ability in them to do it for themselves. They have since become more self-reliant adults because they are self-sufficient.
When we talked about this change, my wife confessed something I believe many parents fall prey to as they raise their kids. She told me that one reason she did so much for the kids was because it met an emotional need in her own life. This is normal — we all need to feel needed. But when we remove struggles in our kids’ lives, they begin to expect (and need) us to continue doing it. It’s addictive, but deep down, we like that addiction.
Psychologist Debbie Pincus writes, “If a parent’s emotional needs are met through their child, essentially they are tying her shoes for her every step of the way.”
What must we do to change our ways?
1. Cultivate a relationship.
Every student panel and focus group we host asks for this. Kids wish their parents, coach or teacher would actually pursue some kind of relationship with them. Often, children/students are reticent to initiate this; they question if adults are too busy.
2. Earn the right to be heard.
I know you’re the leader, but this generation of kids has not been taught to respect the badge or the title. You may have authority, but you must earn your influence. Often, the best way to earn the right to be heard is to listen to them.
3. Communicate belief.
You can’t fake this. Those who win their students over authentically communicate they believe in them, and the same goes for parents. Every young man and woman needs a caring adult to look him or her in the eye and say: “I believe you have it in you; I am convinced you have what it takes to succeed.”
4. Help them see struggles as “Tollbooths,” not “Roadblocks.”
This is one of our Habitudes® for the Journey. Everyone faces tough times in life. To make progress, kids must see difficult situations as tollbooths, where they pay a price to move forward. If they don’t, that struggle will become a roadblock to their growth.
5. Remove the fear of failure.
When kids don’t try, it’s frequently because they’ve been conditioned to think that failure is unacceptable. Many have never failed or struggled; they have trophies in their rooms just for “playing.” We must relay to them that failure isn’t final or fatal.
6. Challenge them with a hard assignment.
I have come to believe that deep down, every kid wants to be involved in a project that’s very important or almost impossible. When we give a tough assignment — at home or at school — one that takes everything they’ve got, it communicates we actually take them seriously and have faith in them.
My friend David has a son named Nick. Years ago, when Nick was in middle school, he told his dad about a new iPod that had just come out. He wanted it badly and convinced his dad that they would sell out quickly. David asked his son if he had enough money to buy it. Nick looked down and mumbled that he didn’t. Then, looking up hopefully, he asked Dad if he’d buy it for him.
David was in a quandary. Like you, he loves his kids. At the same time, he knew that simply buying it for Nick wasn’t the best way to lead him in that moment. He didn’t want to foster “immediate gratification” in his oldest son. So, David responded in a very wise way. Here is what he said to Nick:
“Nick, I’m going to buy that new iPod so we won’t miss out if they sell out. However, because I am buying it, it is mine for now. I am going to allow you to make whatever payments you can each week or each month until you pay it off (at no interest). Once you pay for it, I will give it to you. I know you’ll be able to do this.”
Nick smiled and agreed.
David told me that a few months later, Nick made his final payment and got the iPod from his dad. He also told me now much Nick had learned gratitude, discipline and patience in the process. Hmmm. It was all the result of a thoughtful — not over-functioning — parent.
Dr. Tim Elmore, President and Founder of Growing Leaders, is a best-selling author and international speaker. A world-renowned expert on Generation Y and Generation Z, Dr. Elmore uses his knowledge to equip educators, coaches, leaders, parents, and other adults to impart practical life and leadership skills to young adults that will help them navigate through life.