One of my favorite wise women is Rachel Naomi Remen. I was given her article In the Service of Life by one of my mentors and it has a profound influence on me as a parent. I strongly encourage you to read this piece for yourself as it offers numerous gems. For now, let me open with Remen’s second paragraph:
“Serving is different from helping. Helping is based on inequality; it is not a relationship between equals. When you help you use your own strength to help those of lesser strength. If I’m attentive to what is going on inside of me when I’m helping, I find that I’m always helping someone who is not as strong as I am, who is needier than I am. People feel this inequality. When we help we may inadvertently take away from people more than we could ever give them; we may diminish their self-esteem, their sense of worth, integrity and wholeness. When I help I am very aware of my own strength. But we don’t serve with our strength, we serve with ourselves. We draw from all of our experiences. Our limitations serve, our wounds serve, even our darkness can serve. The wholeness in us serves the wholeness in others and the wholeness in life. The wholeness in you is the same as the wholeness in me. Service is a relationship between equals.”~ Rachel Naomi Remen
Don’t parents need to help our children?
If you agree with Dr. Remen’s thinking, as I do, then the answer is simple: no. As parents, we reinforce the unequal nature of our parent-child relationship when we help our children. The message — likely subtle at most times but sometimes obvious — is “You’re not capable. You need me. I have something you don’t have.” Like many parents you might protest at first, reminding me that babies cannot feed themselves or change their own diaper, or that even older children sometimes can’t actually do a given action yet (tying their shoes, buttoning buttons, cooking a meal, washing clothes, etc.). Our children’s specific abilities are beside the point. There are things that I cannot do — build a computer, fly a plane, hard boil eggs without googling for instructions — but that doesn’t mean I’m helpless.
Being your child’s partner without fostering beliefs about helplessness
Yes, there are things your child is learning or will learn but can’t yet do. Yes, there are tasks on which they may want you to lend a hand. By no means am I advising a hands’ off approach. I’m simply inviting you to consider whether a belief of your child’s incapacity, less-ness, weakness, or need is part of the energy driving your assistance and, if so, to begin shifting how you support your child in their life experience. Below are some tangible suggestions you can use to act more from a place of service than from the motivations to help or fix.
- Wait until your child asks you to step in with ideas, suggestions, feedback, or physical support. Obviously if something harmful or hurtful might occur (your three-year old is wanting to pound nails on her own or your eight-year old is preparing to mow the lawn in flip-flops), step in. Otherwise allow the space to exist for your child to try out her own ideas, tinker with this or that, or simply have her own process. There are times when what really matters is the process in and of itself and not a given outcome.
- When invited in, be curious first. So rather than jumping right in to “solve” your child’s dilemma, check in to see what she specifically wants from you. If she asks, “Mama, can you help?” you can say, “I’m glad to lend a hand. What are you wanting?” You might even not actually be needed to do anything other than be encouraging. In this instance, your response to a request for help might be an objective statement or question and then an inspiring remark: “Are you working to build a really tall tower (asked based on what you’ve been observing)? Why do you think it’s falling down? I bet you can think of a couple ideas that might help keep it standing.”
- Give your child objective feedback about what you see him doing, exploring, experimenting with, learning, and mastering. Alfie Kohn’s Unconditional Parenting book is one of my parenting favorites and I especially resonate with his cautions against praise. “‘Good job!’ isn’t a description; it’s a judgment,” writes Kohn. In NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children, authors Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman cite research that found “frequently-praised children get more competitive and more interested in tearing others down. Image-maintenance becomes their primary concern.” By offering periodic reflections about what you see your child learning, you help them own their own capability as well as their ongoing ability to grow and learn. “I see how much time you’re spending drawing letters and figuring out how to spell your name,” or “It looks like you’re really interested in figuring out how the pieces of that toy fit together,” do more to foster your child’s esteem than do vague cheers of “Way to go!” or “You’re so good at writing.”
- Practice serving from your “weakness” rather than only intervening in those areas where you feel most competent. I studied French for close to a decade and lived in France for a semester during college. I’ve enjoyed cultivating an ear for the language in my daughter and it’s fun for me to read her French storybooks. My husband took a few semesters of French in college and hasn’t used it much since. Originally he deferred to me when our daughter wanted French stories read to her, but he finally realized that that wasn’t the example he wanted to set so now he willingly reads to her from these books. Though he might speak French more easily than our daughter, he too is a learner and so he’s modeling for her the idea that one can be of service to others before one has gained mastery. Other examples of this modeling include apologizing to your children and sharing with them stories of your own “failures” and “mistakes.” Your fallibility helps them have compassion for their own and also plants the seeds of knowing that growth isn’t always a direct, fast, or linear process.
Serving our children is a far-reaching act of love
As parents, our love for our children is at the root of all that we do. That love carries us through sleepless nights of infancy and teenager-dom. Love inspires us when our own fears, doubts, and confusion seem set to stop us in our tracks. Our love can free us from old habits and beliefs to build homes of greater joy, trust, and peace than we may have dreamed possible. We can learn to let our love for our children show as we practice service and let go of tendencies to help and fix. We can honor the wholeness of our children and their inherent strength and capability to achieve whatever most matters to them.
“Fixing and helping may often be the work of the ego and service is the work of the soul. They may look similar if you’re watching from the outside, but the inner experience is different. The outcome is often different too.”~ Rachel Naomi Remen
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