Are you the kind of parent who frequently delivers a forgotten lunch or homework folder? Do all your reminders seem to fall on deaf ears? There’s an expression in parenting education circles: “A child who always forgets has a parent who always remembers.” In addition to the exhausting nature of this role, you might actually be doing your children a disservice. Continuous rescuing, reminding, and doing things that your kids are capable of doing for themselves doesn’t help them grow into responsible adults. Where does the tipping point lie?
“There’s occasional forgetfulness that’s no big deal because we all make mistakes and as a family, we want to have each other’s back. But when it becomes a pattern of behavior, you know it’s time to step in and implement the no-rescue policy,” says Amy McCready, founder of Positive Parenting Solutions and author of The “Me, Me, Me” Epidemic and If I Have To Tell You One More Time.... If you find yourself driving homework or other critical items to school at least a couple of times a month, it might be time to start some training in no-rescue parenting.
Of course you can’t spring such a change on your child without any warning. McCready recommends doing a “reveal” beforehand: Find a calm and quiet moment to explain your intentions. Tell your child that he is growing up and becoming more capable and independent. Mention that one of the aspects of growing independence is remembering his own stuff. “You want to frame it in a positive way,” she says. Then explain that you will no longer be doing his remembering for him and if he forgets things, he’s going to have to deal with the consequences.
Ideally you want to start the process early. You don’t have to be hard-nosed when your child is in kindergarten, but you can increase your expectations as she gets older. “The situations where you don’t rescue change and grow as a child changes and grows,” says Jackie Insinger, a learning and motivation specialist and founder of Insinger Insights. The goal is for children to learn accountability, responsibility, and resilience.
The next step is to set up your child for success. Brainstorm ways to help him remember his items and tasks. It could be a laminated checklist on his bag to make sure all the essentials are inside. A central place to gather items needed for school (and assembled the night before). A reminder sign on the front door. Ask your child what would work best for him. Then—and this is the hard part for a lot of parents—you have to just step out of it and let the shift run its course.
To some, no-rescue parenting may sound like a throwback to the days when kids were often left to their own devices. McCready admits there are similarities, but the crucial difference is that no-rescue parenting involves training up front.
This parenting style may not sit comfortably with those who tend to hover or “helicopter” parent, in today’s vernacular. Yet McCready firmly believes that we do our kids a disservice by rescuing them and that we foster an attitude of entitlement without even realizing it.
Even if the change goes well overall, there might be a few hiccups along the way. Dionne Granillo Sanchez, a mom of three boys in Nuevo, Calif., who decided to try no-rescue parenting, fought the urge to remind her 10-year-old to retrieve his homework from the counter where he’d left it as he headed out the door one morning. “I went back and forth and told myself, nope, that’s his responsibility. I need to let him learn a lesson. So I did.” The fallout was minor but it did put her son in the position of having to explain himself to the teacher, something he didn’t like doing.
How a parent handles the situation in the aftermath is key. The last thing you want to do is say “I told you so.” This kind of response only causes a child to feel shame and humiliation and doesn’t help him do anything differently or better in the future. Instead, focus on showing empathy and coming up with solutions. Phrases like “Wow, that must have been really difficult for you” and “How did you handle that?” work well here. “How a parent helps a child process the experience determines whether or not he feels humiliated, whether he wants to make a better choice next time, and whether he sees it as a learning opportunity,” McCready says.
Although it wasn’t easy for Sanchez to let her son go without his homework, when he got home she listened sympathetically while he relayed the consequences. She thinks the experience decreased the chance of something like it happening again. “I know he’s more aware of things now. He’ll even double-check with me that I signed a permission slip and placed it in his backpack,” she says.
Kids with ADHD or those who struggle with executive function skills can also benefit from no-rescue parenting. “You can tailor how you parent depending on the child in question, and that applies in all situations,” Insinger says. “How much can he or she handle? What kind of things can you expect them to do? If it’s little things, then do the little things. If it’s bigger things, then do the bigger things. But tailor it to the child so that they learn. Teach them in a way that works for them.”
Bringing teachers and coaches into the loop helps across the board. Opening a discussion about the tasks your child is struggling with and what you’re doing to help him close the gap can ease the process. “Oftentimes, behind the scenes, you can work out ways to keep things consistent, to help kids tap into that intrinsic motivation aspect of themselves to be able to accomplish the task,” Insinger says. “Without you jumping in.”
How To Implement a No-Rescue Policy
- Reveal in advance to your children that they’re now going to be responsible for their actions or lack of actions. Choose a time when no one is upset or frustrated.
- Provide training and install systems to help them be more successful at remembering and completing tasks. Get their input on what prompts they think would work best for them.
- Step out of the situation once training and systems are in place and let the chips fall where they may. Nothing will be accomplished if they feel that you’re always going to bail them out.
- Empathize and focus on a solution when your children do mess up along the way—which they will.
- They’re kids and they’re just learning, McCready says. Never blame. Instead, teach them to problem-solve. They—and you—will benefit in the long run.