Make Sure You Leave Space

Child alone deciding

Do you leave space for your child to explore and develop?

Does your child have the time to ask her or himself, “What do I think?” or “Who am I?”

As I’ve been thinking about parenting styles recently, specifically nonviolent communication and positive discipline, I find it very important to be conscious enough to let go, back up, and just let life with children flow. That is tough to do when time and space are cluttered and parent & child are anxious.

Space to Explore

So, let go! See what happens.

Who our children become is up to them. We can be support or even at times catalyst, but they are in control. If we create situations that lead them to believe that someone else is in control, they may always be looking for someone to tell them what to do. Children don’t learn how to negotiate difficult situations or how to lead if they don’t ever find themselves in difficult situations or without an authority figure to tell them what to do and how. They may spend life looking for someone to tell them what the goals or the rules are.

Parents certainly create the structure and help children find direction. Rather than a morning-time question, “What’s on your schedule today?” maybe we ask a nighttime question, “What did you discover today?”

As child psychiatrist David Elkind has said, there has been a generation-long trend toward more focus on academic achievement than on child development—not just achievement but positive measurement. Grade inflation follows the expectation that every child will be his or her parents’ idea of perfect, and teachers had better fall into line. Instead of making our amps louder, we make sure the amps go up to 11. (PLEASE, tell me someone understands that!) If you think about this, it is a profound difference in approach to say either “This is what I expect of you. Now, get on with it.” or just start a conversation with “What’s going on with you?” As push back against the trend toward measurement and prescribed perfection, we don’t have to leave our children’s world unstructured, which can also be frustrating for a child, but we can seek balance.

Blog to Inspire entrant Jill Amery compiled a great list of open play situations a parent can set up for a child to explore at their own time and pace. I also wrote about my scattering of to-do books and magazines for my children. In both cases, the parents set up the situation, but the child chooses the play—or even TO play.

To find the balance, we have to know our children and stay aware. We can’t assume that learning some parenting technique then practicing it will take care of the situation. What situation? What’s going on? We need to improvise as situations develop. We need to communicate with children as they develop, communicate in ways that are developmentally appropriate for them.

Whether these minimally set up situations are right for a particular child in a particular moment depends on that child. It isn’t always going to be easy to plan ahead.

Find Your Own Happiness

Sometimes, when a child is looking for structure (“Mama, I’m bored.”), the answer might be that they need to find their own happiness. I haven’t tried saying exactly that, but I might.

It might get messy. He might get hurt. He might learn something I don’t know. My child might become his own person.

When I look at contrasts in parenting styles, I wonder if the problem with over-parenting is in parents taking too much responsibility. No, I’m not suggesting irresponsible parenting. I just know that, no matter how difficult, we as parents aren’t responsible for the thoughts and feelings of our children. We should be responsive without taking on responsibility. We don’t need to fix everything.

Attachment parenting in particular really resonates with me because it helps me to recognize the importance of being responsive. When a child asks to breastfeed, to be held, to sleep next to me, to get help sorting through feelings, I meet that need when I can and when I know how. I think often of the La Leche League weaning advice: don’t offer, don’t refuse. When a child wants to work through something on their own, I need to back off. My oldest is nearly a teenager, and I know how difficult it is to back off. If she’s confident in her own abilities to deal with her own thoughts and feelings, though, what kind of message would it give if I push in and say, “I’m here to rescue you”? That is not the message of support and confidence I want to give. That doesn’t reflect my true feelings, but it takes a conscious effort on my part to recognize that my children need the space to find their own happiness.

Over-parenting as Media Phenomenon

As I explore what people are saying about parenting, I keep coming across warnings about over-parenting, helicopter parenting, hyper-parenting, and the like. Several recent books on hyper-parenting are full of anxiety, stretching their article-length ideas into thin books. I don’t find these helpful. They are more about criticism of what they don’t like than about what families need. It sounds to me like a battle over what authors want to consider “common sense.” (This I base on an interview with Carl Honoré about his book Under Pressure.) Perhaps these books don’t connect with me because I am not their target audience. Or maybe I can’t get past the hyper voice telling me “don’t be hyper!” I keep thinking about the focus in positive discipline on what you DO want. Don’t tell me not to hyper-parent because then I’m going to focus on hyper-parenting.

A couple of weeks ago, the CBC’s Doc Zone aired “Hyper Parents and Coddled Kids,” a documentary on the impact of overparenting. (Watch the whole doc online.) They trace the trend to the early 1980s, when baby boom parents sought to give their children an advantage. Ann Douglas, in her review of the documentary, finds that this trend toward micromanagement as parenting is passing. One can hope.

I appreciate a gentle nudge to keep enough space open that my children can explore their world and themselves. I don’t need to abandon them, nor do I need to hover over them. The more difficult path is finding out what they need in the moment and reaching a balance that will serve them well in the long run as they become good human beings.


David Elkind, The Hurried Child (1981). The classic book on over-parenting written by a psychologist.

Carl Honoré, Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting (2008). Written by a journalist.

Hara Estroff Marano, “A Nation of Wimps,” Psychology Today (2004).

Dr. Alvin Rosenfeld M.D. and Nicole Wise, Hyper-Parenting: Are You Hurting Your Child by Trying Too Hard? (2000). Also known as The Over-Scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-Parenting Trap. Written by a child psychiatrist and a journalist. Their fundamental principles are a place to start.

Image © Dmitry Kutlayev |

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