On one end of the parenting-style spectrum are the “helicopter parents” who hover in an ever-vigilant attempt to protect their children from basically everything. On the opposite end, we have the “free range parents” who let their kids roam — just like we all did in the good ol’ days, back when we only came home for the occasional sandwich or when the street lights came on at dusk. But there is a middle ground to be found between these two extremes, and as one pediatric neuropsychologist describes it, it’s the parents who mindfully meddle.
What is mindful meddling?
Dr. Sarah Levin Allen, executive director of Brain Behaviour Bridge and author of Raising Brains: Mindful Meddling to Raise Successful, Happy, Connected Kids, says she developed the idea of mindful meddling because she is, by nature, a meddler, but has recognised the importance of being intentional in the ways we meddle in the lives of those whom we love.
“We need to create more times we’re actually looking out for the best interests of the other person involved and not just on an impulse of wanting to get in there and fix things,” Allen says. “And as parents, we’re constant fixers; we want to fix these things.”
Instead of fixing every last problem for our kids the way a helicopter parent might do, Allen says it’s important to be intentional about why and how we get involved so that we’re helping our kids develop their own problem-solving skills.
Let their goals guide you
As kids grow up, they’re working on one developmental milestone after another. When they’re little, for example, they might be figuring out how to manage their emotions or learning to use their words to say how they feel. So if you say they can’t have ice cream for dinner and they start kicking and screaming on the floor, knowing which goal they’re working on will help inform how you respond. If emotion-management is top of mind, you can help them practice taking deep breaths to slow their heart rate. If they’re working on naming emotions, you might talk through the words they can use to describe how they’re feeling (once they’ve calmed down).
“Once you know what your kids are working on, you can do this mindful meddling a lot easier,” Allen says, “because the idea is that you want to step back when it’s a goal that your child is working on.”
In her own home, she says, her son is working on developing his problem-solving skills, particularly as it relates to keeping track of his homework assignments. If Allen were to full-on meddle, she’d simply email the teacher and ask what the assignments are. As a mindful meddler, though, she talks through with her son how he can find the information he needs.
“And then that becomes an exercise for him in figuring out how to advocate for himself instead of me jumping in and calling the teacher and fixing the problem — that doesn’t teach him anything,” she says. “When you’re mindfully meddling, your objective is teaching.”
It’s helpful to remember that a parent who mindfully meddles guides rather than directs.
Mindfully meddling in their social relationships
One area where we might be tempted to meddle a wee bit more is in our kids’ relationships with their peers — particularly when there is conflict. It’s our instinct to jump in and tell them exactly what to do the next time their friends purposely leave them out during recess or when one kid calls another kid a mean name. We may even recognise that one of their friends isn’t a particularly nice friend, and we might want to point that out and suggest they spend that time with someone else. But when we direct them what to do, we deprive them of the experience of learning to manage their own relationships.
“I always encourage my parents to think, ‘What does this little brain need to learn, and what can I teach this brain?’” Allen says.
It’s important, over the long-term, to teach them how to address a situation themselves, so once they get older and are not sharing these things with you anymore, they have the skills they need to manage whatever situation they’re facing. In practice, that means asking reflexive questions that get them talking about how a situation made them feel, how they might communicate that to their friend, and what makes a person a good friend in the first place.
“You want them thinking about these relationships themselves because they’re not going to tell you everything [when they get older],” Allen says. “You want them to hear your voice in their head, because you can’t always be there. If you’re not teaching — if you’re not mindfully meddling, and instead you’re directively meddling — you’re going to run into problems, because they’re not going to have the skills [they] built themselves … to manage their own relationships in the future.”