When I was young, I would occasionally tell my mother about the outrages perpetrated on me, in the hope that she would intervene on my behalf, as other mothers seemed to do for their daughters.
Other mothers phoned each other and complained about rude remarks on the playground. Other mothers demanded leniency from teachers when their children felt they had been graded unduly harshly. Other mothers lived to advocate for their little darlings, the lucky things.
My mother was not this way. She would listen while I described my difficulty, and then she would say -- so often that I swear it had a singsong rhythm -- that she regretted that she couldn't help but "You have to learn to fight your own battles."
Maddening! Unfair! And, as I now understand, quite right!
The child whose mother runs interference in playground scrapes may feel at an advantage at the time, but she's missing an opportunity to develop her own social skills. The child whose grades go up because Mummy made a fuss is not doing as well as the people around her pretend. The girl who sits back as her parents make things happen is a child not learning to make things happen for herself.
Wise as my mother's approach may have been, I didn't appreciate it. It was hard, having that kind of mother. In fact, having that kind of mother was one of my difficulties! Yet had I complained, you know what she would have said -- "You have to learn, yadda yadda" -- and she'd have said it with that irritating lilt in her voice, too.
Over the years, I've come to understand just how much restraint is required for a mother to keep from jumping in and sorting things out for her children. (Hint: It's almost as hard as having a mother who refuses to ring up the mother of that mean fifth-grader and give her a piece of her mind.)
The trouble with letting children fight their own battles -- in the broadest metaphorical sense -- means risking that they may not succeed. They may blow opportunities, make terrible blunders and be trounced by fifth-grade meanies. It means watching them learn certain lessons the hard way, when it would be so exquisitely easy -- effortless, really! -- for us to sprinkle our sugary capability on the situation.
They may insist that a school project "isn't due for ages," until suddenly it's due tomorrow and they're pleading with you to make a CVS run in the car for a poster board. If they go by bike, it'll take longer and they'll lose valuable work time. Yet hitting deadlines is a kind of battle.
They may oversleep and not turn up for a weekend morning baby-sitting stint because they forgot to set their alarm last night. Should you wake them? Waking up is a supreme battle. They have to learn to do it on their own -- and yet ...
They may want a particular plum summer job but have not gotten around to making a preliminary phone call ("I'm waiting to hear back," they may say.) Should you prod them? Landing a job is a kind of battle, too, and they need to know how to compete -- and yet ...
The circumstances vary, but these are live issues for almost every parent I know. Push or hold back? Give responsibility or take it? Remind or nag or neither? In our household, it's fair to say that we've experimented with all of the above. The one thing I can't bring myself to say, prudent though it may be, is: "You have to learn to fight your own battles." Thanks anyway, though, Mom.
Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.