When (Not) to Rescue Your Children

Toby Klein Greenwald

I have some friends who think they're doing their children a favor when they rescue them.

I don't mean that they jump into a pool or grab their kids out of the street when a car is coming. Neither am I dissing advocating. (See my column on "Mounting the School Barricades – How to Advocate for your Child.") And there is a difference between rescuing and advising; as parents, it's our duty to advise.

I mean rescuing children from the consequences of their own actions.

One of my friends, before a major family weekend event, told me she had five speeches to write. "Five!?" I exclaimed. "How many times can they listen to you?" "No," she said, "they aren't just mine. One for me, one for my husband, one for my son, one for my daughter…" "And if you don't write them?" "They won't get done." "So?"

One of our sons, I'll call him "Mitch," was docked from a wonderful three-day school trip when he was eleven years old, because he had started a fight with a classmate. To his credit, he didn't deny it. I called the teacher just to get the details, but did not argue with his decision, though I thought it was harsh. To assuage the disappointment just a little, we took Mitch to see a film one night. Unfortunately, our choice – The Day After Tomorrow, about a nuclear holocaust – was hardly a hoot. One could argue that offering a (lame) consolation prize is a rescue of sorts, but we didn’t try to talk his teacher out of his decision to dock him from the trip. Five years later Mitch became a counselor to troubled youth, to whom he imparted the message: Take responsibility for your actions.

When I mentioned it to a colleague, ten years later, during a discussion on "rescuing," he asked if taking Mitch to a film was not a "rescue" of sorts. I asked Mitch what he had thought about it at the time. He said that he didn't remember the story too well, but his assumption was that, on the one hand, we always mounted the barricades when we thought a teacher was really wrong, so he understood that at the time he must have deserved a punishment. On the other hand, we're not his teacher; we're his parents. And it was obvious, he said, that one could not have compared one evening at the movies with parents to three whole days of a great school trip with friends. He said, "You probably thought, 'He's learned his lesson,' and as my parents, you didn't think I needed to sit depressed in the house for three days."

Some Ground Rules

Even those who are closest to us need to be informed that we are neither their slaves nor their saviors.

Here are some ground rules, culled from real life — metaphors you can share with your children:

"You break it, you buy it." It's your decision if you don’t want to hand in your assignments, or behave abominably in school, or show up late for that summer job. But you mess up – you take the consequences. You want to fix it? To change the verdict (when they drop your grade or fire you)? Do It Yourself. Plead your case.

"Wear white at night." Be visible. If you don't speak up, they won't know you're there. Neither teachers nor employers (nor family members, nor friends) are mind-readers. If you have something to say, say it – respectfully. A career expert I heard on the radio once advised that an employee should always: Do the job your boss wants you to do, and let your boss know what you've done, including extra initiatives. Translated to your children’s ages: Follow instructions and don’t expect Mom or Dad to approach the teacher after the fact and plead that you were being creative by painting a picture instead of handing in a book report. If you really want to do that, speak up. Dialogue with the teacher. Don’t be invisible.

"Don’t bite the hand that feeds you. And if you did, you apologize." Whether it's your dad or your boss, don’t expect a pat on the head and more ice cream if you're rude or untrustworthy. And don’t expect your parents to explain to your teacher that you had a bad day or your cat died.

It is difficult to watch our children mess up, whether in small, inconsequential situations or in the really big ones. I have a daughter who insisted on wearing clothes to kindergarten whose color and pattern scheme were totally post-modern. Years later she looked at photographs and asked me, “What were you thinking?” What I was thinking was that it was more important to me that she develop independence than a fine fashion sense, so I grit my teeth and closed my eyes. Today she has a fabulous fashion sense but she is also one of the most proactive, independent young women I know, well worth the torture of watching her walk out the house in those mismatched components at age five.

But on a more serious note – the son of a close friend of mine, who is raising her children in a single-parent family, was busted for sharing pot with his friends when he was sixteen. She let him cool his heels in the local juvenile lock-up for five days, rather than come home for house arrest, before he was assigned to a youth detox center. She was shattered. And when she shared her heartbreak with me, she also told a story. She said that another parent, whose daughter was a friend of her son’s, met her at the supermarket one day and said, “You’re my hero.” “Why?” she asked. The parent said, “Because you didn’t agree to let him home on house arrest.” My friend was nonplussed and, by her account, she replied, “It wasn’t an option for even a blink of an eye. I didn’t deserve the punishment; he did,” she said. Her son eventually got drug-free, finished high school and became self sufficient. “He knows that he can come to me for moral support,” she said, “but not to bail him out of financial difficulties or in any other way. More than my other two children, he recognizes that he’s on his own. I told him one day, while he was still in detox, ‘Be aware that you’ve lost our trust and it will be a very long haul to win it back.’”

Consequences. They hurt. But they work.

If we teach our children lessons in life, hopefully, we will not have to toss them a life jacket.

They will have learned to swim.



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