Competent Children

Dr. Corinne Masur

This post will probably alienate everyone.

But here I go:

There seems to be an epidemic going on amongst middle and upper middle class parents – it involves not just hovering and helicoptering but also downright coddling and intruding. Children from 2 to 52 are being treated as incompetent people who can never do the simplest things – things their own parents – and certainly their grandparents did.

If you watch films of children taken during the 1940’s and 50’s – especially those from England or Europe – you will see children of 2 and 3 in nursery settings sitting at tables, drinking out of glasses or tea cups and relating to one another. There will not be a parent or a teacher in sight and these children seems to be doing fine.

Now don’t get me wrong, I am not getting on the French parents are better bandwagon – but what I do want to say is that children are more competent than we give them credit for and they always have been. By hovering and helicoptering we get in the way of their developing their own skills and worse: we get in the way of them having experiences which teach them how to do what they need to do in life and, as a result, we interfere in the development of their feelings of competence, confidence, and mastery.

Parents are making special meals for their 2 and 3 year olds – separate from what the rest of the family is eating. AND for their 7 and 9 year olds. The family dinner where everyone eats the same food is dead. Now everyone gets their own special meals – whether it is at Burger King or at their own dining room tables. Two year olds are seen as incapable of eating a nice piece of roasted chicken. What could be wrong with roasted chicken, I ask? And if the rest of the family is eating it and the two year old doesn’t like it, he is catered to with something else. OK, well, maybe a 2 year old can be given some macaroni and cheese instead. But why is this STILL going on at 9 and 10? And why are children allowed to go by different rules than normal people? And how many families need to be told that it is OK to expect their children to sit at the table for the entire dinner time? And how many parents have to be told that it is NOT OK for children to use electronic devices at the table? OK, that’s a whole other can of worms that can be left for another post. But how about the bathroom?

Don’t get me started. 5 and 6 year olds are still being wiped by their parents. Sometimes even 7 year olds. Why? Do we really think they can’t do this themselves? Or sometimes Mom or Dad is called in to “check” to see if they are clean. Do we have nothing better to do? How about trusting kids from 3 on up to wipe and if they don’t do a very good job, then trusting that the bath or shower will take care of this?

And homework? Even worse. Since when do children need a parent to do their homework WITH them? Perhaps starting out in 1st grade to get in good habits, a parent can help the child to sit down and do it until it’s done – and perhaps later when something is especially hard, it is appropriate and helpful for a parent to pitch in – but every day? And does a parent really need to proof read every paper a junior high or high schooler writes? And IN COLLEGE does it really make sense for kids to be e-mailing their papers home so they can be edited by parents? Does this actually HELP college students? OR does it leave them feeling that they are incapable of checking over and editing their own work?

This is the question parents must ask themselves from the time their children are 2 years old through adulthood – am I actually helping my child to become more competent and confidant? OR am I stepping in and doing work FOR him (or her) which will result in his/her becoming dependent on my help and feeling that he/she cannot do these things independently???

And if I AM stepping in too often, WHY am I doing this?

Is it just too painful for recent generations of parents to watch their children struggle – to watch their children make mistakes and suffer the consequences – to watch their children feel frustrated? Bored? Angry? And if so, why have we become so intolerant of feelings? And when did we cease to believe that experience was the best teacher and to decide that we, as parents, are really the best teachers and that it is our job to help our children to avoid difficult feeling such as frustration, failure, boredom, and anger?

3 thoughts on “Competent Children

  1. As a doc student in educational neuroscience/special ed, this really hits home for me. In my courses, we talk a lot about the characteristics that make a student succeed in transitioning out of high school and into college or employment and beyond. A growing and already large body of research shows that an essential element to this is his or her ability to persevere in the face of challenges (recently known as “grit”).

    Frustration is an unavoidable part of life, and the earlier you learn what it feels like, and what it feels like to OVERCOME it, the easier it will be later in life when you face frustration, since you will develop the tools and strategies to overcome it, or at least to learn that it’s a feeling that will dissipate with time and effort.

    It is much harder and takes much longer to learn all of this when someone is hovering over you, removing obstacles from your path or lifting you over those obstacles. The person hovering might have good intentions and think they are sparing their child (and themselves) from pain and disappointment, but really, they are probably just pushing that pain and disappointment further down the road.

    For more on the importance of grit and recent research on it, check out Angela Duckworth’s TED talk. It’s worth a watch!


  2. In the 40s and 50s, simple competence was enough to give most people access to a job that paid a living wage. Not so today–the economy is like a giant game of musical chairs, in which most people will end up buried in educational debt and unable to get a job. No wonder “middle and upper middle class” (i.e., comparatively wealthy) parents are overwhelmed with anxiety and unwilling to risk allowing their children to make their own way in the world.


  3. Karen – You may be right about how parents feel – but is it not incumbent upon us as parents to ask ourselves whether the anxiety and competition is actually helpful to our children?



Leave a Reply to Corinne Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s