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Too hot? Too cold? Just right

For every childhood trauma, there’s an appropriate parental response

McClatchy-Tribune illustration (McClatchy-Tribune illustration / The Spokesman-Review)
McClatchy-Tribune illustration (McClatchy-Tribune illustration / The Spokesman-Review)
Nancy Churnin The Dallas Morning News

As kids head back to school, familiar problems have a way of emerging. How are you going to react to their first conflict with teachers, fight with their friends, panic about an upcoming test, or team tryout?

Will you be too hot, too cold or just right – like the porridge in Goldilocks and the Three Bears?

Here’s some advice on these three styles of parenting from Leslie Kuerbitz of Garland, Texas. Kuerbitz has seen it all, from the perspective of being a licensed professional counselor and as an intensely involved mother who admits she tended to veer toward the “hot” parenting mode.

More commonly called helicopter parents, these “hot” parents, so quick to react, hover closely overhead like a helicopter, swooping in to rescue the child from any perceived harm or failure, possibly to the child’s developmental detriment.

Kuerbitz wrote a children’s book inspired by her now-grown daughter, “The Misadventures of Jennifer Pennifer” (P3 Press).

Scenario 1

Your child complains about a teacher or a coach: “I hate her!” “He hates me!” “She’s unfair!” “He’s mean!”

Too cold: Brush it off and minimize the child’s fears and feelings. Tell the child it’s his or her fault, so “buck up and deal with it!”

Why this is a problem: The child feels no one cares. He or she may feel alone, frightened and clueless as to how to solve his problem. The child may turn his anger outward with an inappropriate response toward the teacher or coach, or turn the anger inward and become depressed and harm himself.

Too hot: Agree and pile on, adding, “The teacher is a monster!” Don’t attempt to communicate with the teacher. Go to the top and talk to the principal, the school board, the school superintendent or the president of the United States (if you can!).

Why this is a problem: The child might be venting and doesn’t want the parent to fix it. Now the child has to deal with the fact that her parents blew up a situation and the simple pity party has become a bill before Congress! How embarrassing!

Just right: Listen and ask questions. Your child may feel better after venting. Offer to talk to the teacher or coach (but not the world) about a problem if your child is still unsure of what to do.

Why this helps: You’re building confidence by showing children you believe in their ability to rescue themselves, while establishing yourself as a sounding board and safety net.

Scenario 2

A big test or project is coming due, and your child is panicking: “Mom, Dad, can you help? I don’t know what to do!”

Too cold: A child should tough it out. Kids who can’t handle these things themselves are lazy, uncaring or difficult.

Why this is a problem: The child may fail, which could erode their confidence, making her even less capable in the future. Or the child may embarrass themselves by coming up with a project that is overly creative, bizarre or outrageous.

Too hot: Take over and cram your child for the test or do the project for the child.

Why this is a problem: These parents erode a child’s confidence by sending the message that the child will fail without them. By taking over the exam preparations or doing the project, parents miss the opportunity to help their children help themselves.

Just right: Ask questions, listen and offer help but do not take over. Find where the child is having difficulty and give guidance and support.

Why this helps: The child gets the joy and pride of completion and the confidence that comes with knowing she can do things for herself.

Scenario 3

Your child is fighting with friends. “They’re picking on me!” “They’re bullying me!” “She’s dorky!” “He’s embarrassing – I don’t want to be seen with him anymore!”

Too cold: Too busy and don’t have time for this nonsense. Kids should work this out – or not – for themselves.

Why this is a problem: Sometimes the problem is worked out badly, with your child or the other children taking on bully or victim roles.

Too hot: Meetings are arranged with all of the parents of all the children involved. This parent may call the other parents, ranting and raving.

Why this is a problem: These parents send their children the message that they are incapable of sorting things out. This undermines their children’s confidence and winds up embarrassing everyone.

Just right: Ask questions, listen and offer suggestions. Invite a friend over to work out their disagreement. Assess calmly if this is a dangerous situation, in which case a parent has an obligation to talk to the other parents.

Why this helps: Each time a child can solve a problem peer to peer, it builds confidence for the next encounter. Doing it in a safe environment such as your home should reduce tension and give you an opportunity to evaluate if this is a potentially explosive or dangerous situation.

Real-life examples

Does this happen in real life? You bet! Here are some examples.

Scenario 1: Conflict with teacher-coach – Sarah Squires, 48, of Dallas, the mother of three girls, now 19, 22 and 24, says when her oldest, Ryan, was 16, she was crushed when she did not make the volleyball team. It was hard for Squires to see her child upset, but she had a just-right response that served Ryan well.

“I told her that she must go to the coach and ask why, which she did,” Squires says. “The coach gave a plausible answer that did not take away the pain but was calming to the hurt.

“I realized that my role was to be the parent – nurturing, redirecting and comforting – and to trust that the coach would do her part. The result was a kid who took up a new sport, golf, as a junior in high school.

“Not only did she make the team, which was eager for new players, she served as captain her senior year. To this day she still loves playing golf with her dad – a joy she might not have had if she had continued on the volleyball court.”

Scenario 2: The big test or project – Kuerbitz, 57, who admits to having veered toward the too-hot response as a mother, says her daughter, at 9, straightened her out 20 years ago:

“As a writer, my daughter asked me to proofread her papers for grammatical errors, etc. I got too involved and rewrote her paper in my style with my adult vocabulary. Understandably, she got angry with me and said, ‘Hey, mom, this sounds like a 37-year-old woman and not a 9-year-old child!’ I sure learned my lesson after that!”

Scenario 3: Conflicts with kids – Forty years ago, when B. Wolf’s son, Steve, was a 10-year-old fourth-grader in Richardson, Texas, he told his mother he was having problems with a school bully who called him names and grabbed him by the arm.

Wolf, now 78, recalls being unsure at first what to do. But once she was convinced he wasn’t in physical danger, she had a just-right response: She listened calmly and caringly, advised him to stay away from the bully and gave it a few days to see what would happen.

A few days later, Steve came up with his own plan. When the bully grabbed him by one arm, Steve took both his hands and grabbed the bully back, and shouted: “Shall we dance?”

The bully wiggled to get away but Steve held tight. He said louder, “Come on! Let’s dance!” while the other kids watched and laughed.

Steve told his mother the bully never bothered him again.

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