It’s Not My Monkey

I’m going to admit, for better or worse, that when my children (ages 23 and 28 - both of whom are married or partnered) have a problem, it causes me anxiety.  Their problem may be with work, or insurance, or with their spouse or partner.  It may be with their feelings of sadness or anger or anxiety.  It may be with finances or their car.  It doesn’t matter, because the moment I hear of it I want to fix it.  In fact, I often take on the feelings as if they are my own.  I begin internally brainstorming about how to solve the problem.  I often want, desperately, to throw money at it if it can be repaired with a financial solution.

There is a saying: “You’re only as happy as your least happy child.” While this rings true for most of us as parents it’s ultimately a co-dependent and unhealthy philosophy.  Allowing our children’s problems to become our own diminishes their resiliency and disempowers them.  Just as we struggled with various aspects of our lives when we were children, tweens, teens, and young adults, we must allow our children to struggle as well.  

There’s an old Polish saying, “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” When the monkeys get out, it’s important to acknowledge that you may be watching the circus, but you are not necessarily responsible for getting the monkeys back into their cages. You can feel bad that the monkeys are out.  You can acknowledge that the monkeys are causing chaos and disrupting the circus, but you must also realize that it’s better for the ringmaster to fix the problem.

In my groups and with my individual clients, I ask them to adopt this saying as a mantra, “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” The invariable question is: “How can I do that? When my children experience problems, those become my problems as well.” And that’s fair.  After all, I began this blog by admitting to the same thing, even though I have adult children!

The answer, of course, first depends upon the developmental level of the child. For example, a six year old who is whining about being thirsty is perfectly capable of getting their own water from the fridge or the water faucet.  It’s their monkey and their problem to fix.  When we say, “That’s something you can do,” we empower them, build their confidence and self-esteem, and teach them to be resilient in solving their own problems.  However,  that same six year old may whine about being hungry at dinner time.  Developmentally, a six year old is not capable of fixing themselves a meal.  It’s our responsibility, as parents, to make sure that dinner is served in a timely matter.

Now the truth is that sometimes defining who the monkey belongs to is easier when our children are still children and their problems are more concrete in nature.  What gets tricky is when the children get older and the problems become more complex.

Take this for instance: A parent sees that their fourteen year old has spent six weeks researching and writing a paper for school.  It’s due the next day and the teen asks the parent to read it over.  It’s terrible; absolute dreck.  All of the work that they put into it is going to, at best, get them a C.  Whose monkey is it? 

Or think about this: A college aged student, while at school, develops Mono.  They feel horrible, and aren’t able to get out of bed, much less go to classes.  Should you, as a parent, pull them out of school for the semester and nurture them back to health at home or allow them to get better slowly, on their own, in their dorm room? Who’s monkey is it?

As you can see, many situations don’t require a simple, “You can do it” answer. The truth is grey, rather than black and white.

At this point in a dilemma, we have to push the pause button on our reactions and take a moment or two to think.  We must ask ourselves in as non-biased a way as possible:

If I allow my child to fumble through this on their own, will they drown or just sink? When a child is learning to swim, sinking teaches them skills.  Drowning, of course, is not an option.

So, in the case of the teenager who has spent a lot of time working on a paper to no avail, a lot will depend upon what kind of a student the teen has been in the past: have they been a slacker, in which case getting a “C” on a paper that they put a lot of effort into could teach them that hard work does not, in fact, pay off?  Or, are they a hard worker in general, but a poor writer? Have you helped them get better grades in the past by doing a little of the writing for them in order to make sure they get A’s? At this point, receiving a “C” and getting feedback from the teacher would serve them better than having their parent do re-writes for them.

Asking ourselves what a child, teen or young adult can learn by facing adversity and overcoming it on their own will inform our thinking about whose monkey it really is.  We may decide to allow our child to face the consequences of their actions.  Or, we may decide to help them brainstorm about solutions to the problem, supporting them in problem solving and encouraging them to take action on their own.  Or, we might decide that the problem is beyond their developmental or physical capability and take matters into our own hands, as in the case of a college student with Mono who may need more care during their illness than the college environment can provide.

If you decide to take matters into your own hands, however, it’s important that you get feedback from your child that it’s ok to do so. When my daughter was between her Junior and Senior years in High School, she enrolled in a summer program out on the West coast.  Only one day into the program, she had an accident that amputated one-third of her ring finger on her right hand. When I had a chance to speak to her, she was in the hospital waiting for the doctor.  I immediately told her that I would catch a flight out the next day.  She stopped me, saying, “Mom. I love you and I would love to see you. But I think I need to handle this on my own.” I was filled with reservations, arguments, anxiety. But I took a deep breath and said, “Ok, honey.  If you change your mind, let me know and I’ll come out.” She didn’t change her mind and if you asked her today, she would tell you that it was a defining moment in her path to adulthood.  She did it herself and she gained strength, courage and resiliency in doing so.

Teaching our children resiliency and problem solving skills when they are faced with adversity is one of the biggest gifts that we can give to them.  So the next time they come to you with a problem, ask yourself: “Is this really my monkey?” If it’s not, let your child handle it.  They will be stronger, more capable human beings if you do.