Sometimes when I’m feeling exceptionally crabby at the same moment when my husband is feeling exceptionally kind, he takes over the bedtime routine for all four kids. He does the teeth, books, the artful thwarting of all the stalling tactics, and then leaves them in a good position for me to pop from room to room giving hugs and kisses. Those are peaceful, efficient nights.
The other night while I had one of those unexpected thirty to forty minutes to myself, I sat in the living room with a book, curious and jealous at the way our kids were helping Bryan with some general nighttime necessities. Rebecca, six, dragged a hamper full of clothes all the way to the laundry room. Next, four-year-old Elissa darted by me in search of the brush that was missing from their bathroom. Sam, nine, showed up last simply to say that I could give him his hug and kiss right there in the living room because he knew I was tired.
This resourcefulness and thoughtfulness does not happen so seamlessly on my watch. Around me, the kids act as if they can do nothing on their own.
While trying to figure out how long this helplessness has been an accepted (by me) fact of life in our house, I remembered an uncomfortable meeting we had with the school psychologist before Sam had even started kindergarten. As part of the admissions process for our parochial elementary school, I was asked to complete a form about Sam’s interests and abilities. The statements on the form were basic. For example, “My child puts on his shoes without help.” Parents had to answer: “never,” “almost never,” “sometimes,” “almost always,” or “always.”
I took the statements to mean “Does your child put on his shoes,” not “Can he?” With that interpretation of “does he” in mind, I answered the statements honestly, which meant in most cases I circled “almost never” to examples such as: picks out clothes, puts on clothes without help, brushes teeth, wipes himself, and so on.
Sure, Sam possessed the ability to do all of those activities and many more on the list, but during the morning routine (okay, and the night one) I often let my impatience reign. I had a three-year-old and a newborn as well. The operation of getting out the door simply moved faster—that is to say, it moved at all—when I put on Sam’s clothes, shoes, brushed his teeth, and did everything else for him.
I listened carefully as the school psychologist assured me and Bryan that there were no right or wrong answers. She did, however, want to discuss the discrepancy between the results of the aforementioned questionnaire and her observations of Sam during the two group sessions of the admissions process. We had a well-adjusted, capable boy on our hands. So why, at home, were we treating him like he barely had a pulse? Bryan pointed to me, which was fair. Even back then, Bryan’s expectations of our kids were significantly higher than mine.
I explained to the psychologist how I’d answered the questions as “does he” not “can he.” She had figured that out on her own from watching Sam in action, but she still thought it was worth mentioning that I could be and should be giving Sam more responsibilities. He could, at the very least, clean up his toys “almost always” instead of “sometimes.”
I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve only demonstrated moderate improvement since that meeting four years ago. Too often, instead of waiting for the kids to empty their backpacks and put icepacks from their lunch bags back in the freezer, I quickly do it myself. In fact, I quickly do too many things myself. I take their tossed shoes and line them up in a way that won’t cause somebody to trip. I’m always picking up and straightening their play areas instead of demanding that they do a better job when they clean up their messes. I spread the cream cheese, pour the milk, refill the water, and grab extra napkins. In truth, I almost never sit down when we eat.
When Sam returned home from one week (his first) at overnight camp this summer, he told me he wanted to pour his own ketchup. Of course, I told him in a tone that suggested I had been thinking the same thing. I was a bit horrified, however, that it had never occurred to me before that he could and should pour his own ketchup by now. I imagined that school psychologist shaking her head at my shockingly low learning curve. When would I get a clue?
I often say to the kids, “I’m not your personal servant.” Aren’t I though? Do I not constantly trail behind them hanging up coats, turning off the lamp above the piano, and clearing stray noodles and other forgotten items from the table? I know some of what I’m describing is normal, parental love and care. And I know some of the issue relates to my low level of patience. When Bryan puts the kids to bed, he has no problem declaring, for example, that Elissa will not get her bedtime book from him until she painstakingly cleans up the Polly Pockets she’s left in every crevice of the playroom. In my desire to move on with the night, I tell her she can do it in the morning. In most instances, I end up “quickly doing it myself” before she even has the chance.
Where is the line between taking care of my kids and creating this learned helplessness in them? And why is it that despite knowing I’m the problem am I so unable to get out of the way of the solution?
Maybe I ought to give that school psychologist another call and request a private session. Unless you have some good advice?