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7 Words Can Set Your Child Up For A Life Of Learned Helplessness

03/29/2017 06:00 EDT | Updated 06/22/2017 10:38 EDT

As the husband of a teacher, I regularly hear my wife and her colleagues complain about what they call "learned helplessness" in their students. Educational resources define "learned helplessness" in an educational setting as a lack of self-confidence, poor problem solving, wandering attention and feeling hopeless.

This condition is the stock and trade of the over-parented child. It is seen every time a teacher gives a classroom of children a challenging task, or one that calls for them to work and think independently. What used to be a handful is now a classroom full of children who will instantly put up their hands and say "I can't do this" or "I don't understand" without ever putting in the effort to figure it out first. In my personal life, I think of it as "I can't do this-itis."

child asking ques

(Photo: Track5 via Getty Images)

To be clear, there is a clinical disorder out there called "learned helplessness" which the Encyclopedia Britannicadefines as:

A mental state in which an organism forced to bear aversive stimuli, or stimuli that are painful or otherwise unpleasant, becomes unable or unwilling to avoid subsequent encounters with those stimuli, even if they are "escapable," presumably because it has learned that it cannot control the situation.

I point this out because it is clear to me that my wife and colleagues have been getting it wrong. It crystalized in my mind when one of her colleagues pointed out that what we are seeing is not learned helplessness but rather that the helplessness was taught. The critical agent is not the child, it is the parent or teacher. Parents teach this behaviour. They teach their children that by feigning inability they can get things done for them. Sadly, after enough time the question arises as to whether these children are feigning inability or actually lack the tools to accomplish the tasks being asked of them.

I write this blog post as a parent of a child afflicted with "I can't do this-it is" or taught helplessness. I am the father of three children, a son (age nine) and two daughters (ages eight and six). My wife is a teacher who has taught elementary-aged children for the last 15 years. My son and oldest daughter are incredibly independent and have always been willing to give it a good try before asking for help.

I have discovered that the seven most damaging words I ever uttered to her were: "Here, let me do that for you."

Our youngest, however, is struggling with a bad case of taught helplessness. This is likely because she discovered at an early age that she could get her siblings or parents to do things for her, "to speed things up" or "because it was easier to do it for her." Now that the chickens are coming home to roost, we discover that while something may be easier to do for her once, it is a lot harder when we must do it for her every time.

Having spent a long time teaching her helplessness, we are now working even harder at un-teaching her those lessons. In doing so I have discovered that the seven most damaging words I ever uttered to her were: "Here, let me do that for you."

mother tying shoe

(Photo: Igor Emmerich/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

Let's be clear here: it took my daughter six years to learn to be dependent on others and we are not going to break that dependence in a day, a week or even a month. It is a job of many little steps. Our approach is instead of doing it for her, we try to show her how to do something (or explain it to her) then we step back and let her try to do it by herself.

Sure, she is not quick or efficient, but that is part of growing up. She will get better if given the chance, but if we never give her the chance she will never learn to do things by herself. It is not easy and there have been a lot of battles but we are finally seeing results.

This week we had a little breakthrough. As many know, the west coast has been very wet this year and putting on our raincoats is an important step in getting ready to walk to school. Her raincoat has a rather challenging zipper and for months I have simply done the zipper up for her "because we were in a rush." Well, for the last week I have simply said "go on, keep trying, we can wait" and consequently she is getting better. Yesterday she got it done relatively quickly, and today she got it done right away. The pride in her voice as she told me she had done it herself was great to hear.

It is these little steps that are changing her from a child who was taught to be helpless and dependent on others to one who is being taught to take chances, follow instructions and be self-sufficient.

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