You’ve seen it in a hundred comic strips:

CHILD: Dad, could you help me put this model together?

DAD: Sure!

NEXT PANEL: Dad is busily assembling the model; child is trying to peer over Dad’s shoulder.

comic strip


CHILD: Mom, could you help me with my homework?

MOM: Okay.

NEXT PANEL: Mom is bent over paper and textbook; child has drifted off to watch television.

It wouldn’t be so popular in the comics if it didn’t happen in real life. Often we don’t even wait to be asked: we just jump in the moment we see our kids struggling. Rarely do we consider that they may be less than happy to have us take over. Or, conversely, that they see us as easy marks for palming off jobs they don’t really want to do.

In either case, all they’re learning is that whatever requires effort is best left to adults. Too much of that, and someday they’ll be calling us from their jobs to come over and wait on their customers.

How can you tell if a child really needs help—and how much help is too much?

Wait to Be Asked

Unless someone is in actual danger, or you’re running late and the kids’ attempts to dress themselves haven’t made it past the point of basic decency, allow them all the trial and error they want. Don’t even stand and watch unless specifically invited—they’ll pick up on your impatience, and it’ll only hamper them.

Don’t Touch

mom encouragement

If you are asked to help, start with questions: “How do you read those instructions? What if you turned it around this way?” Encourage kids to figure out all they can on their own. (Sometimes, their ideas may be better than “the way it’s always done.”) If you have to tell them what to do, stick with telling and avoid picking up the project or pencil yourself. If you must get involved physically, let them hold the item while you guide their hand. The second you take things literally into your own hands, you’ve as good as told your child to abdicate any power of initiative.

Don’t Become a Flunky

Often, kids are fully capable of handling things themselves—they just don’t want to. Either they see the job as a drag, or they figure the helplessness routine is the best way to get more attention from you. You can head off such problems by:

  • Making regular time to join them in fun activities (which can certainly include chores)
  • Giving them positive attention when they display independence or accomplish something new
  • Setting an example of a positive attitude toward your own work
  • Responding to insistent requests for “help” with an encouraging “I know you can handle it”—or, if they need some help, making sure they do most of the actual work as described above

Above all else, resolve not to let impatience or perfectionism run the show. However expedient your taking over might look now, the long-term dividends of letting children do things themselves are far greater.