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How far should parents go to help kids?

Published September 08. 2012 09:02AM

While I was waiting my turn in a beauty salon, several mothers struck up an interesting conversation. They were debating how far parents should go to help their children.

Their kids never did anything for themselves, they said, and it's getting worse as they get older.

It's so bad, one woman said, that her son refuses to fill out his own college application. She has to do it for him.

"I don't know where he would be without me," she said, "because he won't do anything for himself."

Interestingly, I've been having an ongoing debate with a close friend about the exact same topic. She says she's "exhausted" from researching colleges and sending away for information, trying to find a college that will interest her son.

I told her any kid who doesn't care enough about college to do that himself probably shouldn't go.

Now, this is the same mother who "helps" her son by doing his school research for him and "rewriting" his papers. He was given the entire summer to read two books and write a report for an honor's English class.

"I kept nagging him and nagging him about reading the books but he wouldn't do it. I had to do it for him," she said.

She and I are close friends who feel free to speak our minds to each other. But I probably went overboard when I heard that. I agreed with her that her son was lazy. But one of the reasons he is, I told her, is because she is an enabler.

She enables him to get away with that lazy behavior.

"What would happen if you never read the books or wrote the reports?" I asked.

"They probably wouldn't keep him in the honors course," she said. "And he needs those courses to look good on his college applications."

We differ greatly on how to teach kids personal responsibility.

When my friend had to be hospitalized for a week, she came home weak and not able to do much. But she had to go around the house picking up dirty dishes from the floor because she was afraid the caked-on food would draw bugs, she said.

Her son is 17 and he can't put his ice cream dish in the sink or put his clothes in the hamper. I keep telling my friend not to wash anything that doesn't get in the hamper. I also tell her not to cook if dishes from the night before are still on the floor.

I also insist, in no uncertain terms, she is not doing her son any favors by letting him get away with that kind of behavior. She insists it's easier to do it herself than it is to argue with him about doing it.

I once did a story on the tough love parenting skills of the wife of a prominent lawyer. With six kids in the house, she had long lists of job responsibilities for each child. If the jobs weren't done to her satisfaction, there were no allowances, no computer or video toys and no social privileges.

If clothes never made it in the hamper, they didn't get washed. When the local bar association was having its picnic, two of her boys had to reach under their bed for dirty, wrinkled clothes. She didn't cringe to see them go like that.

"Kids have to decide what they want to be in life and how they want to live. A parent can't do it for them," she said.

Her mothering theories differ strongly from that of my friend.

Judging from the conversations in the beauty salon, it's an age-old struggle: How much do you do for kids and how much do you insist they do for themselves?

I think one young mother hit the nail on the head when she said parents try to give kids everything in life. But what they don't give them is the right to fail.

She's right.

Charles Sykes wrote a book called, "Dumbing Down Our Kids" in which he lists rules for kids to succeed. Here are three of his rules for kids about to graduate from high school:

1. Life is not fair. Get used to it.

2. The world doesn't care about your self-esteem. The world expects you to accomplish something BEFORE you feel good about yourself.

3. Your school may have done away with winners and losers, but life has not. In some schools they have abolished failing grades and they'll give you as many times as you want to get the right answer. This doesn't bear the slightest semblance to anything in real life.

It's complicated what makes one kid succeed and another one waste potential.

But I doubt there's a kid out there who found success because a parent did everything for him.

What do you think? From your experience, what works and what doesn't?

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