Stepping In vs. Stepping Back


I recently attended a lunch where the featured speaker was Dr. Joshua Sparrow, a Director at the Brazelton Touchpoints Center and author of eight books on child development.

Doesn’t that make me sound SO fancy?? I KNOW. If only I had called it a luncheon, it would have sounded sooo much better.

Anyway, he focused his discussion on parenting adolescents and in discussing the difficult task of raising tweens, pre-teens and teenagers, two of his points in particular have stuck with me.

First, he spoke about how preteens often drive their parents so crazy and annoy them to the point where the parents don’t want to be near them anymore. The parents think the kids’ behavior is a sign that they are fighting for their independence and as a result, the parents take a metaphorical “step back.”

According to Dr. Sparrow, the kids’ behavior – the acting out and pushing back – is actually an indication that they are in the middle of what is essentially a developmental growth spurt and because of this, actually need more involvement from their parents.

Huh. So, just when our teens are acting AWFUL, we have to show them MORE love? In other words, you’re saying it just got HARDER??

I actually left there wondering if the same may be true of the Nibbit. If maybe the testing and the annoying behavior is just a sign that he really needs me to parent him more.

Then I decided… NAH. That sounds exhausting. I think I’ll just continue to give him some space.

This whole issue of not knowing when to step up vs. when to step back is an ongoing debate in the parenting world. Step too far in, you’re a “helicopter mom” and you’re child will never learn how to solve his/her own problems. Step too far back, you’re negligent and not giving your child the support he/she needs to develop the confidence to effectively solve problems on his/her own.

How the hell do we know where the balance lies? 

(Answer: we don’t.)

Here’s a story:

The Loud One has one good friend on her school bus in the morning. Everyday I see her walk onto the bus and look around for her friend as she walks down the aisle. On the rare occasion her friend isn’t there, LO takes a seat by herself and just looks out the window. This breaks my heart. Am I crazy? Yes. I know I am. But would this break your heart, too? I think it might.

So one day I asked her.

Me: LO, when you get on the bus and you don’t see Good Friend, what goes through your head?
LO: Well, I feel really sad.
Me: <in my head, I KNEW IT!>: Why exactly do you feel really sad?
LO: Because I wonder if Good Friend is home sick so then I’m worried about her.
Me: Oh. Is that ALL? You’re only sad because you’re thinking about HER? What about YOU? Doesn’t it bother YOU that now you’re sitting alone with no one to talk to??

No, I didn’t say any of that last part out loud. But here I was, ready to have a whole talk with her about how she could maybe try to talk to some other kids or maybe bring a book to read or maybe I should call Good Friend’s Mom every single night to find out if Good Friend is going to be absent from the bus the next morning… and turns out, LO doesn’t really care.

I seriously have to stop projecting my shit onto my kids.

And that brings me to the second point of Dr. Sparrow’s that resonated with me. (Yes, I’m going to continue to reference this lecture and use big words like “resonate” because I do believe it makes me sound cultured and intelligent, indeed.)

He said that sometimes we think our tweens, pre-teens and teens are having such a rough time during those adolescent years simply because WE had such a rough time during those years. I mean, the way he said it sounded so much better, but that was basically the gist of it.

In other words, just because your early teen years were marred by permed hair and bad eyeliner and awkward attempts to be popular does NOT mean that your kids are going through the same thing. They’re probably going through SOMEthing, but it probably won’t be the same thing you remember.

In other words, don’t project your shit.

For the record, I for one look back at those years with NOTHING but fondness. I mean, how can I not? I looked like this:


Yes, that’s a Bryan Adams concert t-shirt. Yes, I desperately want it back.

I think the Step Back vs. Step In debate is endless and without a clear winner. There is a time for hovering – your toddler is getting hurt, your teen is being bullied – and there is a time to give our kids some space – your six year-olds are arguing about what game to play, your freshman wants you to talk to a teacher about a bad grade. And I’m sure there are people who disagree with even those few examples.

At least we can all agree that we’re all just trying to raise our kids as best we can and not completely* screw them up. And that it’s hard. And that sometimes it Cuts Like a Knife. (sorry)


*A little bit is OK though, because nobody’s perfect and we want them to be able to blame us for their flaws when they’re older.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s