Balloon Animals: A Parenting Improvement Story

Do you ever have moments where learning something at work teaches you something that impacts how you parent your children at home?

At a recent performance review, I was told, “Your team loves working for you and they are learning a lot from you.  The main feedback I have for you is that you’re managing things so well that the members of your team don’t have any room to fail.  You should step back a little so they can stumble and learn from it and grow more.”  While this is important information for me to have as a manager, I found myself much more worried about how this applied to me as a mother.  If I wasn’t aware of this at work, was I lacking self-awareness at home?

The following weekend, I set out to really observe myself and NOT help my 9 year old daughter or 13 year old son (with Autism).  It was a very enlightening weekend.  I’ll just share one story:  “the balloon animals”.

Saturday morning, my daughter informed me that she wanted to make balloon animals and that we needed to get balloons from the store.  Instead of adding this to MY list, I said, “do you want to go to the store with me so YOU can get the balloons?”  She wanted me to get them for her.  This was my first ah-ha.  If I take responsibility for this, I’m the one who has to remember and she doesn’t need to do anything.  Not this time.  (And I love having her join me at the store anyway.)

At the store, I was almost done shopping.  She had not mentioned the balloons and they were not in the cart.  Should I remind her?  I don’t want to go back to the store when she remembers AFTER we get home.  My next ah-ha:  in my effort to avoid adding a 2nd trip to the store OR avoid an unhappy child who forgot her to buy her own balloons, I’m not giving her room to make a mistake by forgetting.  I need to set aside this want/need for efficiency so my daughter can learn.  And you know what, she remembered!  We had already gotten in line to check out but she remembered.

As we stood in front all the balloon options, she grabbed a set.  They were NOT the kind of balloons required to make balloon animals.  They were just the big, round balloons.  I didn’t want to make an extra trip.  Instead of fixing this for her, I just asked a pointed question, “So, those are the kind of balloons you need to make balloon animals?”  She slowly read the balloon package.  As I was in a hurry, it felt like an eternity.  But she realized she had the wrong ones and put them back.

As she looked at the 10+ different types of balloons, I could see exactly where the right ones were.  But it was taking her a while.  Another moment where I wanted to just grab the right one and go.  But SHE really needs to do this on her own.  As painful as the shopping process was, it was nothing compared to what happened when we got home!

If you’ve never made balloon animals before, those balloons are really hard to blow up!  My daughter struggled with this for at least 20 minutes.  Frustration lead to huffing and puffing which lead to tears.  This was like hearing your baby cry and wanting to go pick her up and comfort her.  But she needed to figure this out.  If I wasn’t watching myself, I’m sure I would have been helping her blow up these balloons.  But I stepped back and just encouraged her to keep trying or find another way.

She eventually asked me if we had an air pump, the kind you use to manually blow up an air mattress.  Great idea! And she came up with the idea on her own.  If I had helped her, she wouldn’t be using her brain for problem solving.  Once again, it would have been easy for me to run downstairs to get it for her.  Instead, I told her where I would look but I wasn’t sure if it was there or not.  More frustration from her.  She wanted me to find it for her.  But she went and found it.

She wrestled with the balloons and the pump for a good 20 minutes.  I felt like she was wrestling a baby bear.  She struggled to get the balloon onto the pump.  The balloon would shoot off when she pumped air because she didn’t have enough hands to pump the air AND hold the balloon in place.  She eventually found a “chip clip” to help hold the balloon onto the pump so that she’d have enough hands.  More great problem solving.  Watching this was painful as I wanted to help her so badly!  And admittedly, my husband and I had to work to keep from exploding in uncomfortable laughter.  This was quite the spectacle!

When she finally got it all worked out, she created her first animal.  And it was amazing, something I certainly don’t know how to do.  And she was so proud.  It was a level of pride I haven’t seen before, likely because she did it all herself.

I learned a lot from all of this:

1. It takes time and a lot of patience to really be a good parent.  We need to slow down and give our kids time to figure things out and do things themselves.

2. When we help our kids too much, we rob them of this feeling of pride, accomplishment and sense of being capable.  And we may even be indirectly communicating to them that we don’t even THINK they are capable.

3. By spending more time in the short run, raising more capable kids will save us time in the longer run.  For example, my kids get themselves ready for school – alarm, getting dressed, making their own breakfast, making their own lunch, being ready to catch the bus on time.  This saves me a TON of time in the morning as we’re all getting ready for the day in parallel.

This is something I’m going to need to keep working on.  And it won’t happen overnight.  As for work, my self-awareness on this is much worse there.  So I’ve just asked my team to help me.  I’ve asked them to tell me when I’m stepping in to do something they don’t need me to do.  And I’ve got a deal with my boss that if something small falls through the cracks and causes some issues that we can recover from, I’ll consider that a success.

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