In this day and age, being a “helicopter parent” is one of the worst insults out there. The implication that you hover over your child, solve their problems for them, and coddle them is something to be deeply ashamed of. Parents of high-schoolers, don’t do your kids’ homework projects for them! Empty nesters, don’t call your kids’ professors and argue about their grades! And even parents of younger kids, don’t jump in and break up their arguments—let the kids work it out themselves! Am I right?
How embarrassing to be one of those parents that is too quick to jump in and intervene on behalf of their child. But.
You knew there was a but coming, didn’t you? Because there’s always a line.
As a teacher of early childhood parent-child music classes, I have a unique perspective on this. Sure, I see over-eager parents helping their child do allthethings and never giving them the opportunity to make their own choices or efforts with their hands and bodies. They might be new parents. Hopefully they’ll learn.
But I see the opposite end of the spectrum sometimes too, and it often has to do with social interaction and the dreaded “sharing.”
Toddlers—especially young ones—frequently take each other’s things. I see it regularly in music class; there’s always a child, generally under two years old, who wanders around the room and tries to take all the other kids’ instruments. Sometimes it’s sort of funny, or even cute. Sometimes it takes the child’s caregiver a minute to intervene, and sometimes they never do. Who knows? Maybe they think it’s an adorable habit, or perhaps they simply don’t care. Either way, is the klepto kid “bad”? Of course not. There’s nothing developmentally abnormally about kids that age taking each other’s toys. Toddlers love to hoard.
And that’s not what concerns me. At least 50% of the time, the parent of the child whose maraca is ripped out of his/her hands just lets the other kid do it, and murmurs, “Oh, it’s fine,” waving it off as no big deal. And maybe it is in fact no big deal. Maybe there is a value in letting our kids fight their own battles or learn to brush off disappointment. After all, that’s a healthy, practical life skill, isn’t it?
I’m not so sure it’s the right message, though. The other half of the time I see parents hold tight to their child’s instrument and say, firmly but pleasantly, “That’s Emma’s shaker!” And personally, I think that’s the right thing to do. If I am in a public space and a child my daughter doesn’t know attempts to take off with her toy, there’s no way I’m not going to step in. Does that make me a helicopter parent? I’m not sure. But I’m also not sure that I care.
I’m not talking about kindergarteners in this scenario, either. I’m talking about one- to two-year-old children. At this age, isn’t it more important that they can depend on their parent to have their back, to keep them safe, to help protect their boundaries?
Another thing I see often is the wandering toddler who likes to give hugs. This is so sweet. Unless you’re the shy child who doesn’t have the slightest interest in being hugged. And again, many times parents will stand by and say, “How cute!” or “That’s so nice!” while their child is rigid with terror, disgusted, or worse, actually crying. I don’t judge those parents, I get it. Who wants to offend the kind-hearted little girl (or more accurately, her parents) who simply wants to dole out hugs to all her buddies? And that’s the point: We don’t want to be mean. We don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.
But in this case, I firmly believe that it’s more important that we advocate for the needs of our child. Rather than making sure the family you barely know doesn’t think you’re an A-hole, isn’t it more important that your child knows he can count on you to uphold his sense of safety in the world? It absolutely is, in my opinion.
Now let’s talk about sharing.
Frankly, I think sharing can be kind of stupid. At least when we’re talking about toddlers. It’s unnatural, painful, and there is loads of research that has determined that sharing is not a useful or age-appropriate skill for toddlers. Sure, why have a playdate if your kid is going to scream whenever their pal dares to pick up a block, but there’s a line. We always remove the “unshareables” before our friends come over, and then we have a nice long conversation about how the rest of the toys are fair game. But my kid is four.
For a one- or two-year-old, there really isn’t much value in sharing. (**Addendum: See astute reader comment below. I’d like to clarify this point. I totally believe it’s appropriate for kids to “take turns” on say, the grocery store mechanical horse, or even set a timer for a favorite outdoor toy on a playdate. The forced “hand over your special toy” thing? Not so much. But yes, there is definitely an appropriate way to integrate turn-taking and patience with toddlers. Thanks, Sarah!) I don’t believe it’s OK for kids that age to grab each other’s belongings away, and I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with a 20-month-old child who doesn’t want to give that strange kid a turn holding the baby doll she brought with her. The emphasis on being “nice” and sharing is over the top, particularly with little girls, who have been socialized for decades (centuries?) to take care of others, make them feel good, and put their own needs aside. If your child brought a special truck to class (ahem, as a teacher, I would strongly prefer these *special* items stay in the car or diaper bag, but that’s a story for another day . . .), there is no reason you should let some random kid walk away with it while your kid sobs and wails, simply because “it’s nice to share toys with friends.” When you’re a toddler, it is absolutely not nice to share toys with friends.
I’ve seen toddlers find another adult’s lap to sit in during class, an adorable practice I refer to as “lap-hopping.” It always makes everyone smile. Except, sometimes, the child whose parent’s lap has been invaded. And again, I frequently see parents smile uncomfortably and say, “It’s OK, Taylor’s just taking a turn on Mommy’s lap. We can share!” while their bereft child flings herself to the floor.
Dude. Do you share your husband with the next door neighbor? Do you let your sister’s hairdresser borrow your car? C’mon. There is never any reason to let someone else’s kid sit in your lap so that you don’t appear rude, at least not when it actively upsets your own kid. Unless we’re talking about siblings, kids don’t need to share their parents! Some things are sacred! Gently sit the sweet little lap-hopper aside and say, “Maya doesn’t want to share her Mommy’s lap right now.”
But that’s the thing: we are still fighting off this “let’s not make waves” politeness mentality that often doesn’t serve our families. I see this even more often with grandparents who attend my class. (Relax, people, I love the grandparents, and I hate to make sweeping generalizations about generations of people, but just go with it.) It’s much more common for caregivers in their 60s and 70s to insist that their grandchild share, give a hug, greet the teacher (even when they’re clearly terrified) in the name of good manners. They came of age, and raised their children, when “Yes, sir” was more important than respecting healthy personal boundaries.
And for goodness sake, of course I believe in manners! I don’t think common courtesy should be an archaic value that only the Boomers and their parents still possess. I love kindness! But we need to stop worrying about everyone thinking we’ll be perceived as impolite when we stand up and teach our children that:
1.) They absolutely can have special things that they do not have to share.
2.) They don’t need to give a hug, high-five, or even verbally greet their peers or teachers (as toddlers, that is. Eight year olds? Certainly a verbal greeting can be expected).
3.) They can count on some semblance of order and safety (when I get a shaker out of the bucket, nobody is going to take it away from me) that is not going to be disrupted by other people.
To a degree, we can’t always determine our children’s safety. Sometimes terrible things happen, they lose people they love, they experience loss and sadness. But we can absolutely help them build a foundation of safety and healthy personal boundaries. We can help them enforce their personal space, sense of self, and physical and emotional boundaries. We need to show them how to do this when they’re young, so that they can do it themselves later. There’s no need to be a jerk about it; we can still use kindness and courtesy while saying, “No thank you, Gracie doesn’t want a hug right now.” And if somebody doesn’t think that’s polite? Too bad.
Here’s what you may have missed:
- I was on Bon Bon Break this month writing about how my daughter and her friend inspired me to try harder.
- My “I’m the Mommy Who Swears” article was on Redbook last week.
- A piece I wrote about how pregnancy loss impacted by marriage was published on Good Housekeeping and Cosmopolitan!
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