As a parent, I'm what I like to call a "fixer." My kids, however, might prefer the term "control freak." This comes out in lots of ways, from how I try to edit a school essay, mend a frayed friendship, or seize control of the pancake batter because it's quicker, more efficient, and, heaven knows, neater.
Fixers like me mean well; we're just not always on track. "I'm trying to distinguish the times I'm stepping in because I think that my child will suffer in some way if I don't from the times I just don't want something to reflect poorly on my kids or myself or my husband," says Claudia Von Savage, a mom of four in Cape May, NJ. For those uncertain moments, we offer this primer on when to ride in on your white horse -- and when to encourage your kid to take charge.
Problem: A Playdate is Going Downhill
Stay OUT If... The tiff is rankling your nerves, not theirs. Once when one of my daughter Alexis's pals was over, she kept snarkily proclaiming that Alexis's prized stuffed dog, Poochie, didn't like her anymore and wanted a new owner. Alexis was unfazed. I, on the other hand, was getting steamed. But jumping in with "Does not!" would have done nothing to prove my maturity, nor would it have encouraged Alexis's admirable confidence to rise above the taunting. A good rule of thumb comes from Blackstone, MA, social worker and parent coach Bill Chaplin. "You want to problem-solve with them," he says, "not for them."
In fact, even loud voices don't necessarily signal a kid crisis. Flare-ups between Rachel Lampert and her cousin, both 6, can sound testy, but they almost always blow over. "It's hard, but I try to just let it go," says Rachel's mom, Debbie Lampert, of New City, NY. "Most of the time they work it out, and two minutes later, they're playing again."
Butt In If... The yelling picks up, the dreaded "I want to go home!" is uttered, or, worse, somebody gets bonked. "That's when I'd intervene," says Nancy Moreland, a mother of three from Chattanooga, TN. Usually, Moreland says, intervention means offering guidance about how to play fair. But sometimes, she adds, if things are really bad, it's more of a "swoop in and rescue" mission, either helping them start a new game or having them take a break for a snack, which is almost always a quick peacemaker.
Problem: Your First-Grader's Face Drops When He Gets Sent Down the Giant Chutes and Ladders Slide.
Stay OUT If... You're afraid losing will hurt his feelings. Losing is one of those stinky facts of life -- and it's no fun to watch, either -- but that doesn't mean you should save your kids from the experience. Once kids are 6 or 7, they should be able to get the concept of winning and losing, notes Chaplin.
"I tell my boys, 'Everybody gets to win sometimes and lose sometimes,'" says Lisa Porter of Columbus, IN, the mom of Ben and Evan, ages 7 and 5. Usually the agony of defeat is forgotten more quickly than you might think, she adds.
Butt In If... You start to hear claims like "You cheated!" Cries of foul play can quickly escalate, so redirect your kids to something less competitive. They may also mean a particular game is over their heads. One or both of the kids just may not get the rules or understand what counts as cheating, notes Eileen Deamer, the Chicago mom of an 8- and a 5-year-old.
Problem: Your Child Seems to Have Been Bumped Down on the Sports Rung.
Stay OUT If... He doesn't appear to be bothered by the situation. "Paul is not very competitive, but I am," admits Rachel Black of Medway, MA, whose 11-year-old son recently joined a swim team. "When he got moved to the slower 'learning lane,' I kept worrying that he was going to be sad about it. But in reality, I'm the one who's sad -- he's fine with it, and I love that about him."
Butt In If... He's crying "foul" or getting no playing time at all. Grade-school sports are supposed to teach skills by giving everyone a shot -- not just the stars. A child with an eye on a top spot should be encouraged to earn it. "Help him talk to the coach and ask, 'What do I have to do to get to play that position?'" says Chaplin.
Don't hesitate to speak up yourself if you really feel the coach is being unfair. "It was hard to bring up, but since we did, the coach has been playing most of the kids a fair amount and given our son recognition that has boosted his confidence," says Angie Tollefson of O'Fallon, MO, who became concerned when her 9-year-old started spending most of his soccer games on the bench. "The coach said that he honestly didn't realize our son was missing out."
Problem: The Siblings are Squabbling... Again.
Stay OUT If... You feel the need to defend the "wronged" child. Frequently taking the side of her youngest child, Willa, often led to hard feelings on the part of her oldest, Emma, recalls Andrea Lehman of Trenton, NJ. Lehman eventually learned that it's better for nonphysical battles to be worked out by the kids, even if the "negotiations" are hard to bear. Even those younger, seemingly defenseless siblings need to at least try to stand up for themselves. One child ratting out the other may mean the tiff is getting too big for them to handle on their own. Even then, you don't have to referee. Sometimes, says Lehman, a calm "I think you two are very capable of solving this" can be just the encouragement they need.
Butt In If... The conflict escalates, physically or to the point of screaming or crying. There should be a zero- tolerance rule for pushing, hitting, bad words -- even if your younger guy is bullying the older one. "My mantra is, 'You may not call names, and you may not scream,'" says Lehman. "When it gets to the point that the neighbors are hearing every word, I play the Mom card."
"It's perfectly fine to say, 'You know what, this is not okay. That's not what we want to do in this family, and I'm calling a time-out. You guys go to your separate corners,'" says Chaplin. But, he adds, regroup later when everyone has cooled off to talk about how the situation got out of control and how they could better handle it next time.
Problem: Your Child Decides to Dump a Friend.
Stay OUT If... She's just expressing her own likes and dislikes. Preschoolers are usually happy with anyone we pair them up with, but school-age kids have stronger feelings. And as much as we'd love our kids to enjoy the company of certain acquaintances -- like our friends' offspring -- they're entitled to choose whom they pal around with. If your kid is mouthing "No way" when you're on the phone with another parent, you need to respect that. She might know something you don't. Maybe a former friend has gotten involved in a nasty clique, or that kid from preschool has turned into a bus bully. Susan Tohn of Sudbury, MA, tortured her 9-year-old daughter, Lainie, by scheduling frequent activities with a particular classmate in spite of her daughter's protests. "Turns out, the other kid was impossible -- really bossy," Tohn sheepishly admits. "It was nearly a year before I realized she was right."
Butt In If... She's being rude or outright mean. Disliking someone isn't a license to hurt their feelings. "My three school-age kids' friendships have evolved from year to year, but we set a 'no blow-offs allowed' rule. When they run into kids they no longer hang out with, they still have to say 'hi' and be friendly toward them," notes Stephanie Mullen of Blauvelt, NY.
Problem: The New Class List Arrives, and Your Child Has a Teacher She Doesn't Like.
Stay OUT If... She's bummed about getting the "unpopular" teacher. "Alex was really disappointed with her fourth-grade teacher," says Nancy Moreland of Chattanooga. "It wasn't the teacher she wanted, and none of her friends were in her class." Moreland felt for her daughter, and worried a bit since she'd gotten some bad vibes about the teacher via the rumor mill. But she wasn't ready to bail Alex out.
In fact, the rumor mill alone -- though a potent force -- should be suspect. "Strict," for example, doesn't mean "unfair." And different kids respond to different teaching styles. Besides, it's always worth it to give your kid a shot at adapting, a skill that will serve her well later on if she has a difficult boss. It seemed like a good idea at the time to switch my daughter Melissa from a fifth-grade class with a purported disciplinarian she'd heard scary things about to a warmer, fuzzier teacher. But in retrospect, I've always wondered if I really saved her from misery or just gave her an easy out. Alex's mom, on the other hand, had her daughter hang in there. The teacher was indeed as tough as reported, but also very supportive, and it turned out to be one of Alex's best school years yet.
Butt In If... Negative student-teacher chemistry significantly affects your child's attitude toward school. "My son had a horrible teacher early on," recalls one mom, who asked to remain anonymous. The teacher was ready to retire, didn't want to be there, and made the class miserable, calling the kids names like "stupid," she says. "He'd come home crying and didn't want to go to school. I went to talk to the teacher and the principal several times." Now, however, she wishes she'd pulled him out.
Though teaching a child to adapt is important, daily stress -- especially in the early school years -- can set your kid back for a long time to come. If switching to a new classroom isn't an option, keep your complaints on the record via ongoing communication with the principal to minimize any unfair characterizations by the teacher in your child's school record. Another mom I know signed up to be the class parent when her child got a teacher she had heard negative comments about. This way, she was able to build a relationship with the teacher and keep tabs firsthand on what was going on in the classroom.
Much as I know the mitts-off approach is the right one, I still have to sit on my hands sometimes to keep them from going into fix-it mode. Who knows? Maybe someday my kids will be solving problems for me.
Lisa Oppenheimer is a mother of two daughters in Medway, MA.