Friday, October 17, 2008

Parenting for Autonomy v. Nurturing

Lee asks why if I think that Gary has a deep need to be taken care of, I don't make the phone calls to the PT and physician. Why don't I take a more nurturing approach? It is a good question. You can read the relevant post to get the background of the story, but the points I want to highlight is that the fact it was only in retrospect that I saw it as a case of a kid wanting to be taken care of, and it wasn't until after I spoke to Roland that my attitude that Gary needed to make the call hardened. Okay, I also want to say that I really don't think the ankle injury is serious. The swelling is going down and he doesn't limp when he isn't thinking about it.

But I think I want to write a post about trying to parent for autonomy while also being nurturing. I try to do both, but there are times when when I can't do both at the same time.

For me parenting for autonomy means not solving problems the kids can solve themselves. This is something that I have to put some effort into because my codependency issues tend to get in the way. I want to fix everything. The kids come to me with a problem and I want to find three possible solutions and offer them, discuss the pros and cons, and help the child choose. I need to hold myself back. Sometimes I have to recite to myself, "he can do this, he can do this, he can do this." I have to remind myself that the child or youth will learn more and feel better about himself if I let him do it himself. Of course all this starts with that first time the baby tries to push themselves forward to reach a toy. If the toy is really out of their reach you might push it towards them, but still leave it just enough out of reach that they have to work for it. Even babies seem proud of themselves when they get it.

Now, I am not always good about this. My anxiety over Brian changing his summer sleep schedule was one of my weaker moments. Turning it over to Roland, who did nothing, was smart. I did not stick to stay-out-and-let-them-do-it-themselves philosophy when Andrew was applying to college. I helped. I did things he could have done. I held myself back and did less than I wanted to do, but I did much that he could have done himself.

None of this is inconsistent with doing the kids a favor. Packing a lunch, helping them find their misplaced coat, proof-reading their papers and hundreds of other things are ways of showing and teaching love and generosity.

I have no clear rule that tells me when I should help and when I shouldn't. I have a couple of thoughts about it though. One is that when the kid can do it and thinks they can't, it might be a really good time to be nurturing by expressing confidence rather than by doing for them. It might not be a good time, of course. There could be any number of reasons why this is a good time to help -- that the child is feeling overwhelmed by multiple problems or just having a bad day are two factors that might make me change my mind.

The other is a principle I learned from Alanon, which is to think about my motives and expectations. Trying to get over the codependent habit of solving every one's problems, does not mean denying myself opportunities to be generous. It is important for me to think about what I am trying to do. If I am doing something because I expect a child to change then I should probably back off.

So all this is clear as mud, right? It's pretty boggy here too. I don't have any calculus that I can put the information into and get an answer. I also don't deliberate over every action trying to decide what is best.

I do try though to remind myself that very often expressing confidence that they can do something without my help is the most nurturing thing I can do.


  1. Thanks for clarifying, Yolanda and I hope that i never sounded as though I thought you were not nurturing as i never meant to imply that at all. I just wondered if Gary needed at some level to have you do for him-- sort of proving that you would. My Robbie is like that and then later he is much more likely and willing to do for himself. I do see too that there could easily be a difference in parenting for autonomy based on age as well. Gary is older than my middle child for instance and there is likely to be a need for him to be able to be independent sooner.

  2. Don't worry Lee...I didn't read what you wrote as critical, prehaps because I have been debating the issue myself.

  3. Thanks for writing this, Yondalla. This is my biggest parenting struggle right now. My 21 y/o daughter LOVES to be nurtured. She likes me to make her bed, cook for her, clean up after her, etc. She also suffers from social anxiety and often (but not always) tries to get me to make phone calls for her, like to schedule maintenance for her car or to work out a problem with a bill. I struggle all the time--literally every day--with what to do for her and what not to. I try to make decision pretty much in the way you outline here, but it is not easy.

  4. Thanks for another thought-provoking post. :)


  5. I have to admit, I thought the same thing as Lee. I know Slugger has a HUGE need for parenting. He practically begs for it at times. Even when it's something hard -- like sticking to a known consequence. He might fight and cry, but when the fit is done he's invariably relieved. Those boundaries and little nurturing moments make him feel so secure.

    But then I realized that your kids are a lot older and a lot closer to really having to fend for themselves in the world. Of course you'll always be there, but they can't run home to you every time they need to make an appointment. You're giving him the tools he needs for life, and that's very important.

  6. You know, there's a huge difference between nurturing and spoiling/pampering.

    The definition of nurture refers more to training, to teaching, to guiding.

    I think its natural for everyone to want to be spoiled and pamered, why else would we have birthday parties, Mother/Father's Days, Christmas extravaganzas (Hannakah & Ramandan too)? I think you can supply enough emotional pampering to suffice without compromising on the autonomy that the child will need in adulthood.

    One of the major problems with todays society is the fact that we expect so little of teenagers- their boredom and lack of age/skill-appropriate responsibilities is often the reason they get into so much trouble with drugs, alcohol, sex, porn, gangs, and so forth.

    I mean look at it- we expect a kindergartner to pick up his clothes and put them away, to carry his empty plate to the sink/dishwasher, to dress himself, to feed himself, to do his homework with assistance, to even help take care of pets (feeding fish, etc), even to clean up his room. That's at 5 years old, at a gross motor and fine motor skill level that's age appropriate.

    But what do we expect from a child a decade older? THE SAME FRIGGIN THING!!! Shouldn't the tasks have increased in difficulty and number? One would think so- it should be a gradual progression to adulthood, rather than a teenager still working on tasks he learned at age 5 until he finishes college. Most 5 yr olds are more responsible (when adjusting for age appropriate skill levels and understanding) than their teenage counterparts.

    Think about it, at age 22, post college, the child is supposed to be able to:

    Get a good job well matched to their skills & education, budget their pay for bills, expenses and fun, entertain themselves in a legal and healthy manner, take care of all self-care (birthcontrol, haircuts, shopping, dressing, medical, dental, insurance, investments), operate a car in a legal manner, choose wise friends and lifemates, understand the political system and be actively involved, etc etc.

    Most 22 yr olds aren't there. Heck a lot of 30 yr olds aren't there! They bounce from relationship to relationship, unable to separate lust and physical attraction from good characteristics that would lead to a good match and lifelong commitment. They create random children, who bounce between different houses(grandparents, parents, etc) and learn the same disorganzied childish thinking. They float from job to job, never focusing on a career that would maximize their skills and talents and their happiness/contentment. They colelct huge credit card debts, forcing them to live on the edge of financial disaster. Their homes are filthy, gone are the days of June Cleaver standards of neatness and cleanliness. They resort to self-medicating with OTC drugs, alcohol and prescription "treatements" for their misery (whereas they self-medicated due to boredom and a sense of hopeplessness in high school, as they underused their potential and felt useless, having plenty of time to sit around and bemoan their lack of material possessions, gorgeous dates and a fancy car), and the worse part---

    THEY COME BACK HOME and live with their parents, or mooch of them, expecting to still be pampered as they were when they were younger. They expect Mom/Dad to "help" them when they lose the 3rd job in a year "because the boss was unfair" or help pay for their child's dental bills because they waited to take her to the dentist AFTER the tooth rotted and broke, instead of taking her yearly for cleanings and checkups. They want Mom/Dad to help foot some ofthe bill for their children because the other parent (a deadbeat from the beginning) finally fled and isn't paying childsupport. They want Mom/Dad to "fix it".

    There are much much healthier ways to express love, positive affection and healthy nurturing than being your teen's personal assistant/secretary/bank. Providing emotional support, wise guidance, and encouragement but allowing the teen to make decisions (yes, even stupid ones) while within the safe net of your family and home are great things. Waiting on them hand and foot is foolish and can create a monster that will expect the world to serve him forever and will be forever frustrated with his future wife, boss and neighbors that they won't put his needs/wants above their own.

    Sorry to have such a rant- but we as parents, especially adoptive and foster parents, have a responsibility to help our children develop the potential they possess, not to serve our own need to feel loved and needed. You want the undying affection of someone who needs your help to get food, go to the dr, leave the house? Get a dog.

  7. And please don't think this was directed at anyone here specifically. I just think society puts a huge burden on the parents to "provide" for the child- pressure at Christmas time for huge gifts, for college tuition, for everything. I almost despise this time of year- the advertisements make me ill- the latest was that "since the economy is so low, it will be important for parents to make sure their children receive a good showing at Santa's arrival, so to insulate them from the potential danger lurking within the banking failures" SAY WHAT?!?

    But to Process- I heard something not long ago about "social anxiety" disorder- it, like agoraphobia, are linked to a lack of exposure to sensory elements in early childhood up through teenage hood. Some children are naturally more susceptible to it due to childhood illness (I think they mentioned cancer, where a child would be isolated deliberately to prevent infection) or disability (tutored at home after bad car accident, unable to navigate steps and schools, etc). I'm sure your daughter is already in counseling and trying the 7 steps a week program (day 1- pick a goal for the week, day 2- try the goal once that day, day 3- try the goal for the morning (wakeup til noon), day 4- try the goal for the afternoon, (noon- dinner), day 5- try the goal for the evening (dinner to bed), day 6- try the goal from morning to dinner, day 7- try the goal from lunch to bed, then try the goal the entire day from then on. The goal can be as small as calling to schedule dr's appointment to as large as going to a mall or to a job. The bigger the goal, the longer it may take. They're supposed to do one goal at a time until they've masterd it for 21 days, I think (I'm winging it here, can't remember but think that's right)

    They say that with practice comes confidence and with confidence comes a lack of anxiety.

    Good luck to her and to you.

  8. Bravo - thanks for this post. It's hard to describe this concept without Alanon. Detachment with love - it sounds so unloving, but it is the most loving thing you can do. I have a 2 yr old, and I can parent her easily. WHat will be the biggest challenge is whne she is a teen and needs to be more independent. Thanks again.


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