Finally, our kids are emerging from a hibernation not of their choosing. Variations of in-person school are happening; sports teams are practicing; playdates with friends outside their pod have begun; kids are roaming in the village; parks are open. Finally, our kids get to stretch their wings…and fly solo.
For some, school re-entry has been a challenge. Worries about friends, socializing, academic competence, and even separation surfaced. But for many, re-entry was a slam dunk. After their children’s first days back, the exclamation, “I have my child back” echoed throughout the city.*
There was good and bad to all that Pandemic togetherness. Parents got to know their children in new ways. Family relationships were expanded and deepened. The pace of life slowed down. Parents spent time with their children as never before. And (young) children got the parental attention they craved.
And now, kids are well on their way. It’s the parents I want to address for their children’s sake. For over a year, 24/7, parents played an extensive role in their children’s lives like never before. They were ever-present in the child’s schooling, in her social life, in her daily activities and care. Night and day parent and child were just a few feet apart. Literally, the space between, normally provided by school and social life, disappeared.
During the Pandemic at home, children came to expect their parents’ help and support…and get it quickly. You (or an adult) were right there. Easy peasy! A teacher on Zoom asked her child student, “Where is your adult?” The message? You need an adult to help you; you are not expected to do it yourself.
Truth be told, that help may not have been such a good thing. For many the togetherness that was part of the Pandemic undermined the child’s independence and self-reliance, the child’s genuine developmental need to “fly solo.” A big part of growing up is growing away.
A child needs to develop a sense of her/himself as someone who can do things-even hard things-who can make things happen, who has agency and choice. She needs to learn to think for herself, to use her own ideas. She needs to experience her own successes and her failures. And she needs to see herself as someone who can recover from missteps, mistakes, and failures as well as enjoy successes of her own making.
To do that the child’s adults need to land the helicopter.The child must cultivate a sense of “I can do-it-iveness.” If an adult is right there, available, ready, and eager, how can the child cultivate his own power to make things happen?
In a recent New York Times article (How to Lower Your Child’s Risk for Addiction https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/31/well/family/kids-children-addiction-risk.html ), the author, Jessica Lahey, used the expression, Self-Efficacy. It is a term I have long used in my work with parents referring to a person’s ability to see himself as someone who can make things happen, who believes in his ability to succeed. I see self-efficacy as the foundation for coping with life’s challenges, for developing self-reliance, and for building resilience.
With parent/adult right there at the ready during the time at home or even in small pods with a reduced adult/child ratio, the child did not need to put in independent effort, to give it “the old college try,” to persevere. Neither did he live with the mistakes he may have made or even get to experience his own failure. Someone was there to make the course correction, keeping the student on the triumphant track.
One my favorite “Betsyisms” (found on my website) is The surest way to make life difficult for your child is to make it too easy for him. Of course watching your child struggle is really hard, sometime even painful. But saving him is short sighted. Maybe it relieves the pain for now. But for the long run, it actually undermines his self-efficacy. Escaping the confines of the Pandemic world into our new “normal adjacent” world, re-entry has been flavored by a child’s weakened sense of self-efficacy. His view of himself as someone who is capable, who CAN do a hard task or who can recover from missteps or failure is diminished.
Among the things Jessica Lahey points out in her article are the positive effects of self-efficacy. She also looks at what can (and can’t!) happen going forward to those who have underdeveloped self-efficacy. Scary stuff!
Parents are like mirrors to children.The child absorbs the parent’s reactions and expectations as clear messages about him. A parent stepping in too much, too often, or too soon gives the child the message not only that she isn’t expected to complete the task but more, that she can’t. Her work won’t be good enough. A critical part of our children’s transition back to school and home life beyond the Pandemic, is for parents to back off and reinstate your expectations of your child, whether it be in school work or tasks of all kinds. It is time to land the helicopter that took off a year ago.
*It would not be surprising for some children, once over the elation of being back in school, to act out in unexpected ways. Often it takes time for the child to process the disruptive, unpleasant, or just unhappy experiences he has previously had. And the misbehavior may be a sign of such processing.