Your daughter is fumbling with her zipper. “I can’t do it!” she whines, emphasizing each word with a total-body shake. You should say:
A) “Stop that whining! Don’t be such a baby!”
B) “I see you’re getting frustrated. That’s a tough zipper.”
C) “Here, let me help you.”
D) “Yes you can! Keep trying, you’ll do it.”
Obviously we can rule out A. But the other three are all respectful, loving choices. Which one is best? It’s fine to empathize with a child when she’s feeling frustrated (B), and there are times when the most expedient approach may be to help her (C), but the best outcome of the zipper episode is for her to learn she can work through something hard and succeed, which is why D is the best choice. Sometimes parents worry so much about putting undo pressure on a child that they forget the importance of instilling self-confidence. If a child feels like giving up, she’s much better off getting a pep talk than just having her frustration validated and/ or having you rescue her.
This policy only works if you have a reasonably clear idea of your child’s capabilities. If you overestimate your child you may end up being too tough on him, demanding he accomplish feats he’s not developmentally ready for. But far more often parents underestimate their kids because all children grow at warp speed. One day it’s a struggle for her to draw a square, you turn around and she’s writing her full name on every blank piece of paper she can find. One day he can’t get his thumb around his shirt snap-a week goes by and he can do it in ten seconds flat.
One sign that you are downplaying your child’s abilities is if he seems to be at very different stages at home and away. You are amazed when the preschool teacher tells you he goes to the toilet unaided-at home you are still the official pants puller-downer. You gape as he cooperatively takes part in the class cleanup, enthusiastically wiping the table. It never occurred to you that he might be ready to take on some chores at home. You watch cringing as your son climbs onto the monkey bars and attempts to swing across the overhead ladder. To your amazement he makes it. Last summer he couldn’t. But that was then and this, for one fleeting moment, is now.