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Letting Kids Find Their Own Way

What’s the best time to intervene in a barroom brawl?

My choice? Never.

But a study by Penn State’s Michael J. Parks, a sociologist, suggests that it depends on how drunk the participants are.  Parks found that bystanders typically intervene when the self-control of the fighters is seriously compromised by drink.  In other words, other people get involved when it becomes clear that the brawlers need help to end the fight because they are unable to do it alone.

This study made me think about the handful of times in my career when I had to break up a fight between high school students – usually boys, usually bigger than I am.  What I discovered was that they were often (if reluctantly) glad for the intervention so that they could save face by being forced to back down.  The intervention, however, had to occur at the onset of the fight, before the heat of battle had sapped their reason.

Moving beyond brawls of any sort, the question of when to intervene is an important one for teachers and for parents.  How much help should adults give children and when should it be given?  The answer demonstrated in a couple of other new studies besides Parks’ work seems to indicate that parents and teachers should offer help only when kids are absolutely cannot do it themselves. Too much help too soon tends to produce negative results.

A recent study by sociologist Laura T. Hamilton of the University of California, Merced, finds that the more money parents spend on their child’s education, the worse grades their child earns.  A second study by Mazepsychologist Holly H. Shiffrin of the University of Mary Washington finds that the more parents intervene in their college student’s life – selecting the student’s major, choosing their courses – the less satisfied the student is with his or her life.

Recently I accompanied a group of first graders on a field trip to a local grocery store.  The kids were divided into groups of four or five, each with an adult to help guide them.  Each group had $15 to purchase fruit, drinks, and snacks for a picnic at the park afterwards.  In nearly every group the adult  (usually a mom) made all the decisions while the kids watched.  Only one mother actually insisted that the kids do the work.  Her group took a long time just to weigh bananas, figure out the cost, and subtract that amount from the total allotment. Choosing snacks and drinks took even longer.  They were the last to board the bus, each kid carrying a bag because this mom, unlike all the other adults, refused to schlepp all the stuff herself.   It took a while, but this group of first graders actually learned something on the field trip that the other kids missed.

Eli J. Finkel, professor of psychology at Northwestern, and Grainne M. Fitzsimons, an associate professor at Duke, say,  “Help has to be responsive to the recipient’s  circumstances;   it must balance their need for support with their need for competence.  We should restrain our urge to help unless the recipient truly needs it, and even then, we should calibrate it to complement rather than substitute for the recipient’s efforts.”  In their New York Times opinion piece, the doctors offer this advice to adults in a position to help kids:  Help, but don’t let your action replace their action.

This is a tough position for many of today’s parents to take, but kids need to be allowed to work through problems and make mistakes. Otherwise we rob them of a sense of accomplishment.






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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Practical Leadership are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.