Help Wanted, Sort Of
On learning to balance a natural desire to step in with our growing son's desire for independence.
When it comes to getting our three-year-old son ready for school, teeth-brushing is my Waterloo. No matter how smooth the wake up, how sweet the breakfast, or how simple the look of the day, Cielo invariably throws up flares when asked to brush his teeth. We’ve tried Wonka-ish paste flavors and light-up brushes, but they are no match for Cielo’s frustration and resistance.
One recent morning, anticipating the inevitable, rather than offer Cielo a chance to put the toothpaste on his toothbrush himself, I tried to rush things along by putting the toothpaste on his toothbrush and handing it to him. A forced error all caregivers can relate to: the one where you actually end up slowing things down simply by moving to hurry things along.
Cielo took the brush and began to wipe the paste off on the inside of the sink. “Why do you keep doing that, Daddy?”, he asked, genuinely confused as to my intention. “Doing what?” I said. “Why do you keep helping me?” “But that’s what papas and daddies do,” I answered. “We help our kiddos.” Cielo went on to put his paste on his brush himself—the more he could gob on to top, the stronger his point—and brush his own teeth, even his tongue. “Don’t. Do. That. Daddy,” he then added, wiping his face on the sleeve of his sweatshirt with a teenager’s indignance.
The data does support my assertion though. According to a recent “American Time Use” survey by the US Department of Labor, a parent with a child under the age of 6 spends an average of 2 hours and 8 minutes per day actively taking care of and helping that kid. That stacks up to more than 32 consecutive days in a given year. That’s more than one month of minding your moppet, while doing absolutely nothing else. Keep in mind, too, that these numbers were compiled in 2019, way before the COVID-19 pandemic chewed up every childcare convention. No doubt, those numbers have probably long been dwarfed.
Not only do parents help, but helping is probably the one parenting thing I can honestly say I am really good at. Helping, or more specifically, anticipating someone’s needs and then meeting them, is at the foundation of many of my strongest and longest relationships. In fact, a valentine from me might feel more like heartfelt assistance than outright affection.
This is probably why I took to parenting a newborn so “naturally” as many friends would tell me when Cielo had just arrived. He was absolutely helpless to my abundantly helpful, and I was deep in my stride.
But as Cielo gets older, “What can I do for you?” has begun to shift into “What can I teach you to do for yourself?” Not only that, our proud and determined son insists on this approach. With every moment that I rush to do instead of facilitate, I realize more and more that the net sum of being a good parent will ultimately be the opposite. To really do well by our child, we will have to get more and more comfortable with helping him less. Building resilience in our kids happens when grown ups can model behavior, encourage risk, applaud effort and take a step back.
Last week, Cielo was back on his bathroom step stool, actively not wanting to brush his teeth before we left the house for the day. After a few attempts at trying to help him or help him understand, I just asked him, “Okay, Cee, how would you like to brush your teeth?” He answered, “With Papa’s toothpaste”—my husband Brandon’s very minty, altogether adult, not-remotely-for-baby-teeth toothpaste. Not what I had hoped for but I was grateful for the opening.
I grabbed Brandon’s toothpaste, as well as my toothbrush, running them back to Cielo before the opportunity evaporated—a toddler’s mind can flip as quickly as a jump rope. “Good idea,” I said. “I am going to use his, too.” I invited us to brush our teeth together. One stroke in and Cielo’s face winced. “I don’t like it. It’s too hot-hot.” And instead of a helpful, “I told you so” followed by “Here’s why there’s a preferred way” (my loving go-to), I just said, “Ok, cool, now you know.” Cielo then reached for his strawberry-flavored paste and brushed his teeth like it was the billionth time he had ever done so. No resistance, no games. He even wiped his face with a washcloth after without any help—well, at least without any of that conventional swoop-in I-got-this-for-you help.
Cielo continues to eschew assistance, even undoing things I have done for him so that he can know and claim that he did it all by himself. I absolutely love how he exhibits this independence and self-pride. He will often complete a task, and in seconds look up and ask, “Didyaseeme?” We sure do, Cielo. And you are amazing.
As for my own confidence in parenting—and my hard-wired contention that helping might just be the purest form of endearment—I work to remind myself that not helping is what my particular child needs at this particular time. And while we don’t have to let Cielo in on the secret, I am pretty sure that in these situations stepping back is what’s needed for stepping in. Like no-makeup makeup, no-help help may not be entirely obvious but it’s still getting the job done. And as a forty-something child who feels so blessed to be able, still, to turn to both my parents for guidance, I take sweet comfort in knowing that Cielo will one day think it’s pretty special to ask for his Daddy’s help once more.
This piece was recently published as part of my “Baby Daddies” column on Maisonette.
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Thank you for this. I resonate completely with the behaviors. Besides being extremely helpful info for our future child, I need to remember to practice this on some level with my immigrant Israeli partner!
This is my daughter too! It's so hard not to help but the more independence I give her, the happier we both are.