Yes, you heard me correctly. Path of Least Resistance. I often associate that concept with being conflict-phobic, passive, and trying to keep other people happy. But when I think about the work that I do with parents (in Parent Coaching), I am seeing a parenting approach where parents are afraid of setting limits. Parents are afraid of claiming their position of authority, afraid of setting boundaries, and afraid of creating a hierarchy within the family.
Many families now have an open system where children and parents are on the same level. I know we didn’t grow up with this type of family system. Our parents were in charge, they set rules and we followed them or else, we were "in trouble." Our children don’t have the same healthy fear of us as their parents. They feel like they can negotiate, they can tell us what they want or think and we will change our minds, and adjust based on their preferences.
This becomes especially true when we have a child with special needs. We feel the need to make life a little bit easier because of their struggles. But, I argue that this doesn’t help us to build resilient kids. Children, special needs or not, have their strengths and weaknesses, and using the path of least resistance does not serve you or your children in the long run.
The Urban Pastor (2012) has called this “Child Centered Parenting” where we are “running family life around the needs, desires and tantrums of our kids.” I have heard too many parents in my office state:
Set limits and encourage playtime. Media use, like all other activities, should have reasonable limits. Unstructured and offline play stimulates creativity. Make unplugged playtime a daily priority, especially for very young children.
- “It’s just easier to give in.”
- “I don’t want to make him mad.”
- “I just want to make her happy.”
- “I’m happy when he’s happy.”
- “I’ll do anything to avoid the meltdown.”
- “I don’t want her to be mad at me.”
- “I want him to like me.”
Have you ever caught yourself saying any of these phrases to yourself or to your spouse when deciding how to handle a situation or setting a limit with your child? If you said yes, then you may be following the practice of the “Path Of Least Resistance” parenting style.
We Don’t Want Our Children to Feel Uncomfortable
Without really knowing what we are doing, we are treating our children as if they are fragile, breakable. We want to keep them safe from situations where they may not win, they may be excluded, or they may feel uncomfortable.
Haidt and Paresky (2019) liken this parenting approach to depriving a child’s immature immune system from germs, dirt and potential allergens which results in the system’s inability to create a protective capacity. Similarly, if we don’t expose are children to normal stress, our children won’t develop a sense of resilience or immunity against stressors in the present or later in life.
Because we are trying to protect our children from the ugly and hurtful parts of life, we end up over-engineering our children’s activities and friendships to the point where they don’t know how to start a conversation, form or maintain a friendship, or handle disagreements or conflicts. In our plight to make life comfortable, we are actually debilitating our children’s skill development which will result in a continued need for us to handle daily life tasks, big and small.
Special times. Set aside a few minutes at a regular time each day when you can give your undivided attention to your child. This quiet calm time – no TV, iPad or phones - can be a confidence builder for young children. As little as five minutes a day can make a difference.
We Feel Guilty
Tenety (2019), in her article, American Mothers are Trying Harder Than Ever – So Why Do We Feel Like We’re Failing , beautifully describes how our role as mothers has changed since we were children ourselves.’ Mothers used to create the village with their sisters, aunts, mothers, and grandmothers. Once women started to work full-time and outside of the home, that village began to dissipate, yet the number of tasks and responsibilities increased immensely as we took on the role of employee as well as mom. And, the support system, which we need more than ever, is largely gone. We are left with a great deal more responsibilities and tasks and less help doing it all.
And on top of it all, we have created a culture of needing to be overly involved with the tiny details of our children’s lives, overscheduling ourselves and our children’s lives alongside a large serving of guilt to top it all off. Guilt for not doing enough, guilt for not being present all the time, guilt for not being the best we can be at work and at home. With only 100% to give, we expect 100% in multiple environments and we have created goals that are not realistic or attainable. Maybe we need to re-define our roles and goals. That guilt has turned into making life easy for our children despite how difficult it has become for us, as their mothers.
The Challenges Facing a Firstborn Child
We Don’t Want Our Children to Struggle
When life is too easy, we don’t develop the muscle strength we need to learn how to solve a problem, to develop a sense of strength, to be able to become emotionally bruised and ultimately, to recover. We are hurting our children’s ability to learn from the experience and change their responses in the future. Instead, we have children who feel like they ‘can’t and ‘don’t know how to’ handle tough situations socially or academically. For example, instead of sending the email for your child to a teacher, encourage your child to send the email or to speak to the teacher before or after class. When we do it all for them, they become anxious and depressed because they need us to be there to figure out how to solve problems and then do it for them.
Create tech-free zones. Keep family mealtimes, other family and social gatherings, and children's bedrooms screen free. Turn off televisions that you aren't watching, because background TV can get in the way of face-to-face time with kids. Recharge devices overnight—outside your child's bedroom to help him or her avoid the temptation to use them when they should be sleeping. These changes encourage more family time, healthier eating habits, and better sleep.
We don’t want our children to crumble in the face of an obstacle. We want children who may feel nervous initially but then their sense of ‘let me figure this out’ kicks in. We don’t want children who don’t know how to manage conflicts or strive for higher goals because they don’t know how to or think they can’t. We want our children to come up with solutions that they’ve learned through earlier life experiences when they were younger and their struggles were a little bit easier. That means asking questions, like Deborah Reber (2019) suggests in her article, The 4 Word Question Every Parent Needs To Know: “How did you do that?” So simple and yet so powerful.
A Few Strategies to Build a Resilient Family
- Set rules in your home
- Set consequences for when those rules are not followed
- Ask the tough questions and don’t be afraid to make your child uncomfortable
- Be consistent
- Have routines in your home
- Set high standards for your child/ren
- Ask questions instead of coming up with solutions (e.g., What do you think you can do?)
- Don’t try to make it up or make it better when your child loses
- Don’t socially engineer your child’s friends and friendshipsLet your children form their friendships
- Help your children make connections between their efforts and the outcome of their efforts (e.g., studying for that test resulted in feeling confident and performing well; resolving a conflict makes a friendship okay again)
Helping a Child in Distress
Parents don’t get a manual and we come to this gig with insecurities about our own childhood, no matter how great a childhood we may have had. Learn about your own approach to parenting and think about how this is working towards or against the building of your child’s sense of resilience and emotional strength