Dads often want to be a hero for their kids. The attributes of heroic father may change over time, from clubber of wild boars to breadwinning sole provider to stay-at-home dad with on-point French braiding skills. It’s only natural to want to swoop in and rescue your kids from their problems whenever you can.
But stepping in to save the day has its drawbacks.
In general, every time you solve a problem for your children, you’ve taken away an opportunity for them to learn to work through an issue on their own. Do it often enough, and you’ll have trained your kids to sit back helplessly until you swoop in to wipe up a mess, arbitrate a playground dispute, finish that science fair project, or rig their college applications.
Okay, so you’re a long way from committing fraud, but the point is this: Solving your kids’ problems for them is a slippery slope—one made more treacherous by the fact that dads often gain a self-esteem boost when they can save the day. Playing the hero pumps up your ego and gives your brain little shots of dopamine, so you continue to seek out the reward of seeing your child look up to you in awe and wonder.
When to Take a Step Back
Learning to let go and have your children take the lead on solving problems is something that takes practice. Here’s when it makes sense to stand down and encourage them to try things on their own:
- When It’s Safe: Obviously, if your child is in danger, you step in immediately. It’s up to you to decide exactly how high your threshold for bumped heads and skinned knees is.
- When There’s Time to Spare: Letting your kid struggle through tying shoes when you’re already late for school will just leave everyone stressed. Make sure you have enough time to let them work through issues when you hand over the reins.
- When They Haven’t Asked for Help: Whether it’s because they don’t see the problem (yet), or they’re already working on it their own way, kids don’t always ask for help. Take their silence as your cue to observe from a distance rather than getting involved.
- When They’ve Practiced the Skills: If your child knows what to do but is insecure about trying, resist the temptation to swoop in—even when they ask you to. Be a bench coach instead by offering reminders and tips.
How to Help Kids Help Themselves
Stepping back doesn’t been abandonment! Here’s how to support problem-solving skills and independence while remaining supportive:
- Identify the Problem: Teach kids to name the problem first. You have unlimited opportunities to model this in everyday life! When they’re frustrated, start with one basic question: “What’s the problem?”
- Brainstorm Solutions: At first, take turns with your child to come up with ways to fix something that’s gone wrong. You might give some hints at good solutions, but try not to take over with the “right” answer—at least not right away.
- Test It Out: Let your child choose the solution they like best after you talk through some options. Let them give it try, even if you think it won’t work. Experimentation and learning from failure is a major life skill, and natural consequences can be a powerful teacher.
- Be a Guide on the Side: Your presence and encouragement is the most important way to support your child. Just be there.
- Work Together: When you’re asked for help, be sure to ask what they’ve tried so far and let them recap the process. Then ask what specific thing they’d like help with. Use language that emphasizes you’ll work together instead of taking over.
Stepping back and letting your children work through their own difficulties isn’t always easy, but it’s a major part of parenting. When you’ve done it right, your kids will be strong, independent adults—which is exactly what you want.