by Dr. Andrew J. Dobo, Psy.D.
The rescuing parent has great intentions and is seen by others as a super-mom or dad. They are the coach, den mother, or soccer mom always right next to their child. They volunteer at their child's school almost daily. In fact, they not only volunteer in the school but are probably in their child's classroom. This is to insure that the child is okay and no teacher or student is giving the child any problems. If the rescuing parent isn't at school everyday then they are on standby waiting for the phone to ring to be called into action by the child. "Mom, I forgot my homework can you bring it to me now so I don't get an F for today." What parent would refuse such a small request like that to insure the child does not get a bad grade for the day?
Perhaps your child has forgotten their lunch and has asked you to bring it to school for them, or a permission slip for a field trip, or any other number of their responsibilities that suddenly becomes the responsibility of the rescuing parent. If you respond to these types of requests you are a rescuing parent. Everytime you honor these types of requests you are creating a less and less responsible child.
"So what. What's the big deal about helping out a child when they forget something for school?" This type of parenting, rescuing, has devastating consequences for a child. Here's why. Children learn by experience, not by what you tell them. Think of how a toddler learns what "hot" is for the first time. The caring parent yells, "Don't touch that it's hot, you'll get burned, it will hurt, please get away from that don't touch!"
What does the child do? The child must touch it to see what all the ruckus is about. When the child experiences "hot" they learn never to touch that again--one trial learning. They now know what "hot" is. All those warnings and words were ignored, but the experience was not ignored. This is how children learn, change, and grow; they grow through experience. An experience like this has two components, first there must be a feeling or sensation followed by a thought about the feeling or sensation. Just like our example, the child felt pain, learned what caused the pain, and knew how to avoid it. This simple two step model is the cornerstone of most life lessons that we want kids to learn. Rescuing parents remove all of these opportunities for learning by preventing all distressing feelings and sensation from their child. The removal of this endurable distress creates kids who do not learn that there are consequences for their behavior. They do not learn how to solve problems because parents take care of all of their problems. They do not develop good judgment because parents remove all consequences for a bad decision. Where there is no consequence there is no sense of right and wrong.
Let's take one of our earlier examples. Let's say that Johnny forgot his school lunch and his mom brings it to him so he will not be hungry in school. What did Johnny learn from this? We'll, he learned that if he has a problem he can ask his mom or dad and they will fix it for him. In other words, he learns nothing nor does he take responsibility for anything because mom and dad made everything okay.
Let's try the non-rescuing approach to the same problem. Johnny calls home from the principles office and reports he forgot his lunch, but instead of the parents fixing the problem, they use empathy and place the responsibility back on Johnny by reminding him that he is to blame for his situation. This is done with very few words because the parents' words are not going to teach; it is the experience that teaches. So, when Johnny asks for the lunch to be brought to school the parents simply say, "Johnny, that's sad that you forgot your lunch. I'll help you make a nice big lunch for tomorrow when you get home from school today." That is all that needs to be said. You don't say, "I told you not to forget your lunch. How many times do I have to remind you? When will you learn to be more responsible? Please, do not lecture when you are trying to change behavior. Let the experience do the teaching while you just sit back and watch.
Johnny will not die by missing lunch, but he will feel something--hunger--and he will be thinking all day long why he is so hungry. This feeling and thinking will cause him to never forget his lunch again--one trial learning. He will also come to understand that he has no one to blame for his situation but himself, thus he learns to take responsibility. He may become creative on this day and solve his hunger problem by borrowing money or food to appease the grumbling in his stomach. This is okay; it's problem solving.
Finally, kids with rescuing parents develop low self esteem and are completely dependent on their parents. Remember, if you go to solve a problem for your child the implied message you are sending them is that they are incompetent and cannot handle anything on their own. This is a devastating message that well meaning parents are sending their children everyday.
When a child comes to you with a problem say these magic eight words and watch their self esteem grow and problem solving abilities sky rocket. Say, "What are you going to do about that?" This simple sentence implies that you believe your child is capable of solving the problem. What a wonderful gift to give a child. Letting them know that you believe in them and their abilities to manage their own life.
Dr. Dobo uses the LOVE and LOGIC style of parenting. Please see their website which is an enormous resource for parents. Loveandlogic.com