Have you ever emailed your child's teacher to complain about a grade rather than having your child ask about it herself? Have you cornered a coach to ask why your son isn't getting much ice time? Or, do you automatically mediate when your child argues with a playmate at the park without giving the kids a chance to work it out? If so, you may be a smooth-it-over parent—smoothing your kid's path, removing any obstacles or bumps along the way, like a human ice-resurfacer, all so he won't stumble or fall.
Sure, we've heard ad nauseum about helicopter parents, bubble-wrapped kids, tiger moms, and even dolphin parents. But smooth-it-over parents think they're making it easier for their kids to succeed, when in fact the opposite is true, says Dr. Meg Meeker, a pediatrician and best-selling author.
"[These] parents are terrified to allow their children to fail; because they think if they allow their children to fail, they're a failure as parents," says Dr. Meeker, a mom of four. "We've got to get ourselves out of that connection. Even young kids pick up on that: 'My mom is afraid to let me fall on my face; therefore, I really have something to be afraid of.' When parents are so invested in their kids not having any pain, they focus on that rather than what went right."
Tracy Maier freely admits that she used to be more than a tad over-involved in her two children's lives. She can trace her over-parenting back to the very beginning of her daughter's life.
"Hannah spent her first few days in the NICU. Ever since then, I was scared to death that something was going to happen to her. I was just over the top," she says, noting that she'd routinely hover, intervene or both in many situations.
"My husband would say: 'You can't baby them all the time,' and I'd say, 'But they're not going to be my babies for long.'"
Years later, Maier continued to step in the moment Hannah seemed to be in distress, such as when she got a grade that wasn't as high as Hannah had expected. Against her husband's advice, Maier emailed the teacher, who had indeed made an error that was then corrected.
"I probably should've let Hannah handle this herself," Maier says. "Parenting is an honor, but it's tough, because you want to make the right decisions all the time. It's very, very difficult to let your Mom Guard down."
Dr. Meeker suggests that parents who step in rather than step back are sending their children a strong message: I don't trust that you can do this yourself.
"We're setting our kids up for failure when we teach them that what they really need is more of us and less of themselves," she says. "A great parent finds ways to allow children to fall, so that they can teach that child one of the most important lessons in life: You can fail, but Mom and Dad will never stop loving you. We'll show you how to stand back up on your feet and try again. If you really want to teach a child how to succeed, you have to teach them how to plow through failure."
Once parents feel free to allow their children to fail, Dr. Meeker says they should try to develop strength, resilience and courage. The trick is discovering that fine line between interfering and being supportive.
"You always want to be their wingman," she explains. "You're not riding the plane; you're allowing them to start to go down. Secure kids know that when the bottom of life falls out—or even a few planks in their footing fall out—that they are loved, and that they can move forward. Kids who grow up learning that they can do things in spite of hard circumstances are kids who are going to fly in life."
So how can smooth-it-over parents retrain themselves? Dr. Meeker suggests:
Identify the fear.
Say, "I don't want to allow my child to fail because I'm afraid." Write down what that fear is: "If I allow them to fail, their self-esteem will go down; their friends won't like them; I'll feel like a bad mom."
Refuse to parent out of fear.
Allow your child to stop playing a sport or to take an advanced course and get a C. Tell your child that it's okay to do that, and allow her to try something really hard that she may not succeed at.
Examine your child's life for "perceived failures."
You want your kiddo to get straight As, but she comes home with a C. Rather than saying, "How'd you get that C?," look for character strengths: "I can see you're working really hard on that; I'm really proud of your effort."
For Maier, it took seeing her daughter—now 12—rally from being bullied to becoming an advocate for other children to change her parenting style.
"Watching her helping other kids really opened my eyes," says Maier. "I realized she's going to be okay if I'm not right next to her. I regret not teaching my children how to stumble and get back up when they were little. I've definitely learned that it doesn't matter if I'm a helicopter mom or a [smooth-it-over] mom; good and bad things are going to happen in their lives when we're not there, and they'll be fine."