Lessons Learned from a Tree House

by ParentCo. June 06, 2016

tree house

It started like most projects do, with extravagant ideas and sheer excitement.

The idea to create this masterpiece was hatched one summer night when the sun was scorching hot, and the kids needed some shade. My kids had been thumbing through tree house books and watching "Treehouse Masters" with their dad, who shares the same enthusiasm as they do. Since our yard is exposed to the sun until later in the evening, the kids decided that a tree house could be a nice reprieve for their afternoon adventures.

Plans were sketched out, more books looked at, and hours spent talking about the perfect design. My son even started building a makeshift house with bamboo sticks, wood stakes, PVC sprinkler pipe, and plywood. (I've often thought they should have just stuck with that!)

Our house was a buzz of energy all summer long. At times, it felt like all we talked about was this elaborate plan. Would it have a roof? Could we put windows in it? How about some electricity? My daughter is a concrete-sequential learner, so she would sit out in the area designated for the tree house with her notebook and pencil and sketch it out. My son, who has the energy of a Tasmanian devil, was put in charge of gathering what was needed. We could all imagine the possibilities of this grandiose tree house. My husband said to me one night, "That's the thing about this house; it's going to be built by them. It's a kid treehouse, not an adult treehouse. When I find them backing away from the project to play in the yard instead, I'm done. I'm not doing it for them." Hanging back and allowing children to learn and make mistakes is one of the greatest challenges and gifts of parenting. As parents, we often fail to recognize how capable our children are. We forget that one of the central tasks of growing up is to develop a sense of self. Everything was going according to plan, until one day when it all stopped. I remember pulling in the driveway after work and watching my husband working on the saw. The kids were nowhere to be found. He stood there shaking his head as I walked towards him. My husband has a way of teaching lessons in actions rather than words, which is refreshing in a world that is so filled with too much language and not enough follow-through. I overparent with too many words and instructions, reminders, and interruptions. He cut that final piece of wood and put all the materials away. As soon as the kids came out from wherever they had wandered off to, they were stunned. They could hardly believe that the project was done for the day, and possibly forever. He had no timeline; he couldn't care less if it sat unfinished for years, because it is not about him. In those moments when I want him to give the kids a second, or third, or fourth chance to get their act together and help, he sticks to his decision. It will be built when they are ready. Unlike me, he has the ability to stick to natural consequences. He does not take on these projects in furtherance of his own ego. A growing number of experts agree that by stepping in too often, we can actually set kids back. Many educators and parenting experts say failure, even the opportunity for failure, is a necessary ingredient for raising autonomous, resilient young adults.

Overall, stepping in and doing for children what they can do for themselves is negative. Dr. Madeline Levine, author of Teach Your Children Well, speaks of three ways we might be overparenting and unwittingly causing psychological harm:
  • when we do for our kids what they can already do for themselves
  • when we do for our kids what they can almost do for themselves
  • when our parenting behavior is motivated by our own ego.

Recently, I had the honor of interviewing Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of the New York Times bestseller How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success. The overarching theme in this brilliant book can best be understood with one particular passage: "There's tremendous psychological harm that comes from overparenting. Most damaging to kids is the implied message that they're not equipped to handle life's bumps on their own. When parents jump in, remove obstacles, orchestrate play, and direct the future, they extinguish a child's ability to think and act for themselves." As a school counselor, I often struggle with finding the best resources for parents. If there was one thing I could pick to send home on the first day of school, it would be a copy of Lythcott-Haims' best seller. She insists that recovery from overparenting is possible and has great advice for many well-intended parents who are looking for ways to parent differently. In my interview with Lythcott-Haims, I asked her to share some of the main takeaways from her book. She talked about encouraging parents to: "Parent for the long-term, not for perfection this afternoon. We act as if every playdate, every tryout, and every piece of schoolwork is a make-or-break moment for their future, so we over-help to ensure all of these things go optimally. It is better that our kids experience the ups and downs that naturally happen in life and learn that through their own effort and perseverance they can succeed." 

Since I am actively participating in the 12-step recovery program for hovering parents, reading her book and interviewing her could not have come at a better time. Even though I have preached this way of parenting for years in my professional life as a school counselor, when it comes time to roll up my sleeves and dig in with my own kids, I often fail, miserably. So, armed with a better understanding of how I sometimes get in the way of my own children's autonomy, I wanted to ask Lythcott-Haims what she would suggest to a parent that has already started down the path of overparenting: "I feel ya. I didn't realize I was overparenting until my kids were about eight and 10 when I leaned over at dinner one night and began cutting my 10-year-old son's meat. That was my "aha" moment. (What to do about it was a little less clear to me.) Here's what I've learned: First, if you have a partner, get them on board. Second, look around and identify the ways in which you may be over-parenting. Use your memory of your childhood as a handy comparison. Are you still dressing your kid at age seven? Are you still bathing them at age eight? Are you cutting their meat at age nine? When they have a playdate, are you telling them what to play with or how to play? Are you acting as their alarm clock in middle school? Are they regularly oversleeping and you're their go-to solution for getting to school in high school? Are you on top of all their schoolwork, aware of deadlines and assignments and constantly asking them about all of it? Are you doing some of their homework for them? Step back and look at these behaviors. You're acting more like a concierge, a person whose job is to ensure stuff gets done smoothly, than a parent. When we over parent, our kids get the implicit message that we don't think they're capable of doing things for themselves. They also learn that we'll always be there to take care of every little thing. But we won't."

Lythcott-Haims also shared that, "Sometimes we are overparenting because it makes us feel useful, needed, worthy, and loved. But it's unhealthy, for us and for our kids, to put that ego need of ours onto them." Over the last couple of years, I have realized that one of the best things I've done for my family is to make a clear distinction between where I end, and my kids begin. Simply put, they are not merely an extension of me. Above all, we must remember that capable kids become independent, happy adults. Often times, the adults in their world take away the ability to dream and make decisions. We fault them for not being able to articulate precisely what they want to do when in reality they do know what they want, we just don't quiet our own voice long enough to listen to what they have to say. When they look to you to fix a problem they created, resist the urge to rescue them from the consequences of their mistakes. By offering to rescue them from any discomfort, you are implying that they lack an ability to solve the problem on their own, which ultimately equates to a lack of belief in their ability to do anything.

When I asked Lythcott-Haims what she would tell parents of younger kids, she told me something that I immediately identified with as a parent who's done things for my children that I know they can do for themselves: "Believe it or not, our job as parents is to put ourselves out of a job by raising our kids to independent adulthood. This means we ought to be keenly interested not in doing everything for our kids but in teaching our kids to do more and more by and for themselves each year. What gets in the way of this, of course, is that we can do almost everything faster, more neatly, or more efficiently than they can. Why have your kid set the table when he's not going to do it as well as you do? Because he'll never learn to do it at all, let alone well, unless you let him start doing it! We've got to let go of our need for perfection, and instead delight in the fact that our kids are learning, contributing, and becoming more skilled along the way." Our need to do things for them is robbing our children of the opportunity to develop self-efficacy; the belief in their abilities to complete a task, reach goals, and manage a situation. They need to believe in their abilities, not in their parents, abilities to help do those things for them. A child with high self-efficacy works harder, is more optimistic, less anxious, and more often perseveres. I think so often we are worried about our children's self-esteem and therefore don't allow them to develop self-efficacy. Because of this, I can't help but wonder if we are enabling kids to the extent that they're almost helpless.

There was one particular section of Lythcott-Haims' book where I found myself screaming "YES" while reading. She urges her readers to avoid saying "we" when they mean their kid. "We" aren't on the t-ball team, "we" aren't doing the late-night homework, and "we" aren't going to school every day. Our kid is.

Even after 17 years as a school counselor, I am still stunned when parents say "we" are applying to college or "we" need to fill out scholarship applications. These young adults must develop the skills necessary to advocate for themselves. Is this why we have high school seniors who have to text their parents in the middle of class to ask what topic they should write about in AP English? Does this contribute to the reasons that college students end up back home after one semester? When the going gets tough, they panic and call for us. Dr. Levine states that: "Parents must acknowledge their own anxiety. Your job is to know your child well enough to make a good call about whether he can manage a particular situation. Will you stay up worrying? Probably, but the child's job is to grow, yours is to control your anxiety so it doesn't get in the way of his reasonable move toward autonomy."

Trusting in our kids' abilities to navigate life requires patience, patience, and more patience. But ultimately, we must continue to remind ourselves that this is their path. If we are working harder than they are at navigating daily tasks, then we are robbing them of the ability to write their own story. Sometimes we need reminders that the path leading to their life is best travelled by them. We need to just land the helicopter, put the tiger back in the cage, leave the free range to the chickens and just be a parent, a guide to our children, one that walks alongside them instead of in front or behind. The question we need to ask is: how do parents create an environment that is encouraging, supportive, and sets the foundation for independence? While reading Lythcott-Haims' book, I was reminded of a strategy that educators use in the classroom that mimics much of what she describes in her book. Dr. Madeline Hunter prescribes a four-step process for educators to use in the classroom while working with students. It lends itself nicely for parents to also use at home:

1. Watch how I do it (modeling)

2. You help me do it (or we do it together)

3. I'll watch you do it and give feedback

4. You do it alone.

While creating the tree house opportunity, my husband modeled by looking through plans, measuring, using tools, and beginning the process of assembly. He let them practice the skills he taught them (do it together), while providing feedback along the way (watch). After he was confident that they learned enough, he walked away (you do it alone) leaving them with simple tasks that they could accomplish on their own. They were left to problem solve and rely on each other to get things done. What took place that afternoon is a true definition of self-efficacy. While the simple act of building a tree house may not seem like a significant life lesson, the very valuable skills of autonomy, problem-solving, and self-efficacy can be seen in every part of that structure.

My kids can stand back and say that they truly had a hand in every line sketched, measurement taken, board cut, and nail used (Gasp! Yes, he did let them use a nail gun). The best reward to come from this project is about so much more than a tree house. It's the absolute pride and gratification my kids have from the work they did. Visitors can't even make it up the front steps of our house without my son giving his usual welcome: "Before you go in, you have to check out the tree house my sister and I built. It's awesome!"



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