Talent Tuesday: Tips From Our Members For Our Members - Helping or Hurting? Learned Helplessness

Posted By: Michelle Smith Lank Resources,

Helping or Hurting?  Learned Helplessness  

Michelle Smith Lank

Owner of Kids World Learning Center in Statesboro, GA


I’ve seen it too many times.  Parents who rush to tie the shoes of toddlers who can otherwise tie their own shoes or are old enough to try because the parent is in a hurry or put on their child’s jacket, so they don’t have to hear the whining about not being able to put their own jacket on.  Are parents helping or hurting their children when they complete the tasks their children should do themselves or learn to do?

What is your first response to your child when they say, “I can’t do this?” Do you complete the tasks yourself?  Do you clean the playroom toys because otherwise they would not get picked up? Is it faster to tie your child’s shoes than allow them to try and do it themselves?  Do you leave work to pick up the homework that your 13-year-old keeps forgetting at home?  Does your teen leave dirty clothing all over their room and you pick them up and launder them because it’s not worth the argument? 

I have come across the term “learned helplessness”.  In the educational setting it can mean having lack of self-confidence, poor problem solving, wandering attention, and feelings of hopelessness.  Do you see these negative qualities in your child?  This type of behavior most times is not the fault of the child but can be taught by parents.  Parents are teaching children their ability to not get things done and robbing them of gaining the skills and practice necessary to develop self-competence. After enough time, children don’t realize their true ability and potential.  They begin to lack the tools needed to accomplish the tasks we are asking them to do.

Yes, we want our children to be successful and we may be afraid that they might fail. We feel our job as a parent is to ensure that they don’t fail; however, we are undermining our children’s progress through learned helplessness.  It becomes a cycle.  The more we do for our children, the less they do for themselves.  The less they do for themselves, the more helpless they seem.  The more helpless they feel, our response is to do more.  Instead of learning life skills our children are learning helplessness.

What can we do? Before we rush to complete tasks that children are not completing because it will speed things up or because it’s easier for us, stop and recognize the pattern we are setting.  Pay attention to how we are contributing to the problem.  We can always guide our children in the right direction but allow them to complete tasks.  Encourage our child to walk in independence. Be responsible as a parent but don’t rescue.  Listen as a parent but don’t continually fix things.  Help but don’t take over.  Offer support and comfort.  Once we recognize what we as parents are teaching our children, we realize that the critical influencer is us.  Let’s influence our children to learn life skills verses learned helplessness.