“In an effort to promote independence and responsibility, the school encourages a policy based on the premise that choices have natural consequences — both positive and negative. Students often learn best when they learn from their mistakes. If a student forgets an item at home or fails to complete an assignment, for example, parents are asked not to bring items to school. If a parent does bring an item for the student, it will be the teacher’s discretion whether or not to allow the student to have it. Allowing girls to work out solutions to their challenges on their own or with a caring adult at school builds confidence and resilience.”
–The No Rescue Policy, as articulated in The Hamlin School Parent-Student Handbook
Raising our children can often feel like groping in the dark, but some simple truths are as clear as the light of a California day: Children forget. Children fail. Children fret. Children fall down. Simply put, children mess up, sometimes in grand style, and it is absolutely painful for parents to watch the consequences unfold. As the mother of two young sons, I can say with certainty that allowing our children to experience disappointment, frustration, and sadness is very hard. Never mind that we have read 100 times that mistakes are the building blocks of learning, that we should use the word “yet” to ensure a growth mindset, and that acknowledging strong effort is far more important than praising outcomes. (Thank you, Carol Dweck.) Never mind that we have the “The Lesson of the Butterfly” pinned on our bulletin boards and bookmarked on our computers to remind us that the butterfly’s struggle to squeeze out of the tiny hole was nature’s way of strengthening its wings. (Thank you, Paulo Coelho.) Even though we know progress isn’t possible without struggle (thank you, Frederick Douglass), we quickly don our firefighter gear, grab a pick-ax and a hose, and run to the rescue as soon as we smell the smoke of impending failure.
Moreover, as the mother of sons and the head of a school for girls, I have a strong sense that we tend to rush in and save our girls far more quickly than our boys, thereby reinforcing the stereotypical image of the helpless girl who is unable to use her wits and grit to save herself. (Thank you, fairy tales and Saturday morning cartoons.) If her soccer cleats are left at home, we’ll carry them to practice later. If her lunch bag is still in the backseat of the car after morning drop-off, we’ll re-enter the carpool line and get it to her. Is the math homework still on the kitchen table? No problem — we’ll ask a loving caregiver to bring it to school. Is rescuing our children from distress getting in the way of raising them to be responsible adults? At The Hamlin School (California), we think so. Thus, in order to create clear boundaries for parents and to help build confidence and resilience in our girls, Hamlin has had a long-standing No Rescue Policy, which we work diligently to enforce each day. It’s not easy to tell parents that they cannot get their own children out of a bind, but we need to draw the line somewhere.
In a perfect world, the No Rescue Policy would be unnecessary. Rather than schools devising rules and regulations to guide parental behavior, it would be best if adults were better able to govern themselves. When it comes to our children, how can we increase our pain tolerance, breathe deeply, and allow them to stumble on the very brick that we could have cleared from the path? I humbly offer three key messages to all parents, myself included, with an eye toward reclaiming our role as responsible adults, altering the habits that do not serve our girls and boys well, and controlling our natural instinct to protect our lion cubs.
- Detach your identity from your child’s. If my son forgets his piano music for the third time, I worry that his teacher will think that I am a disorganized mom, not that he is a disorganized student. I resist the urge to pack my son’s backpack with the necessary sheet music by reminding myself that his work habits are not a reflection of mine. Though we share a last name and certain physical features, I am not my children. I love them dearly and take pride in their accomplishments, but their successes and failures are theirs — not mine.
As Kahlil Gibran writes in On Children: “They come through you but not from you. And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.”
- Remember that parental love should be more about doing things with your children rather than doing things for your children. As busy parents, we often assuage our guilt by searching for evidence in our daily lives that proves that we are active and attentive parents. Creating a mental list of all the tasks we have completed for our children makes us feel at peace, needed, and “on the job.” Rescuing them from chores and hard work and checking things off of their to-do lists feel good, even if we don’t readily acknowledge the endorphin rush. The problem with this kind of “parental productivity” is that we are doing tasks that our children are able to do independently. Sadly, we rob our children of a sense of efficacy and affirmation because we need it for ourselves.
- Slow down. I am far more likely to rescue my children and fix problems for them if I am in a rush. It’s far more efficient for a parent to tie a first grader’s sneakers rather than wait for the endless trial and error that comes with learning to loop the laces. You will certainly move faster throughout the day (and the airport, too) if you zip the jackets, pull the roller suitcases, and pass all four boarding passes to the agent. However, what will your child do when he or she is traveling solo? We never want to send our children the message that they are incapable of living without us.
If we want to lead schools of excellence and guide children into lives of purpose, we must build a close and mutually respectful partnership with parents. It is one thing to create policies and procedures and publish them in handbooks; it is quite another thing to empathize, link arms, and offer strategies and tools. Parenting is not for the faint of heart, and we must do our unpaid job with great intention and skill. As Gibran concludes in On Children, “We are the bows from which our children as living arrows are sent forth.” I’m ditching my firefighter gear, picking up my bow, and shooting for the stars.
How to Raise an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims
Permission to Parent by Robin Berman
The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey
Wanda M. Holland Greene is head of school at The Hamlin School (California), serving 400 girls in grades K–8. She is also a member of the NAIS board of trustees.