Over-functioning takes many different forms, but the common denominator is doing something for your children that they already can, or can learn to, do for themselves. Here are some common examples:
- Reminding your child to do her homework
- Finishing your child’s homework or science project
- Making school lunch everyday for your 10-year old
- Bringing your 5-year-old’s coat (or lunch or homework) to school after she left it at home (again)
- Accepting your child’s garbage as he hands it to you before running off to play after snack-time
Parents often over-function without even realizing they are doing it. We do this partly because life is busy and we are just trying to get through daily tasks, partly because we can do things better and faster than our kids, and partly because we prefer not to see our kids be uncomfortable or not do well.
Why is over-functioning problematic? If you always remind your child to do her homework so she won’t forget and receive a bad mark in school, you have done something for her that in the short-term may be helpful, but in the long-term is problematic because your child is not getting the opportunity to learn how to be responsible for herself, or to practice important life skills such as time management and self-discipline.
Similarly, If you always bring your child’s coat (or lunch, or homework) to school after she forgets it at home, she won’t have the unpleasant experience of not having a coat (or lunch or homework) that will in turn motivate her to do it for herself (a.k.a. natural consequences).
Making mistakes and experiencing “failure”, disappointment or discomfort are essential life experiences that provide the opportunity for kids to learn how to do better and to practice new skills. It’s natural for parents to want to buffer kids from these unpleasant experiences, but we make enormous future trade-offs when we do so.
We may be averting some short-term pain or discomfort (both for us and them) by doing so, but in the long-term, we are inadvertently depriving our children of the opportunity to learn and practice important life skills while they are still in the sheltered environment of the family.
Here’s another big downside of over-functioning: it can also become a source of power struggles.
Take the example above of reminding your kids to do their homework. It often happens that as you remind (and eventually insist) that they do their homework, they procrastinate and resist, and a power struggle develops. What would happen if you didn’t start down that path at all?
TRY THIS: Pay attention to all the things you do for your children and ask yourself:
- Why am I doing this?
- Are they capable of doing this for themselves? (If so, teach them.)
- What would happen if I didn’t do this for them? (See post on natural consequences.)
Experiment with not doing some of the things you typically do, and let them know in advance that they should not expect that from you anymore.
Here’s how that might look in practice:
“Jamie, I’ve noticed that I tend to remind you every night about your homework (ownership of the issue/self-awareness). I think you are responsible enough to remember to do your homework on your own (benefit of the doubt), so I’m going to stop reminding you (fair warning). If you forget, or choose not to do it, that’s up to you (autonomy), though if that happens regularly, I think it’s going to affect your grades (preview, natural consequences). If you ever have any questions about your homework, I’m always happy to help; just ask.”
This can be a scary change to make, but imagine how much scarier things will be if they don't learn to take responsibility for themselves and their commitments.