The “Help” They Can Do Without

April 30, 2015 § 1 Comment

"Little Red Henry" by Linda Urban & Madeline ValentineSometimes I think there has never been a more distractible child than my Emily. Ask her to go upstairs for a hair bow, and she’ll come down ten minutes later with a baby doll. Ask her to take a bite of her food, and she’ll break into song before the fork gets halfway to her month. There are days when I think she was put on this earth to teach me patience (and, Holy Saints in Heaven, I am failing).

The temptation to sweep in and finish the job is often too great for me. If I just shove her feet into these shoes, we can leave the house! If I just usher these last few bites into her mouth, this dinner can actually end! Although, if I’m being honest with myself, it’s more than mere efficiency that I seek. It’s more than a desire to control the chaos around me. Doing something for my daughter is as much about the sheer pleasure of my feeling needed. (Remember this?)

As parents, we know we’re supposed to nurture a drive for independence in our children, to prepare them for the day when they won’t need us anymore. At the same time, parenting has become this Super Important Identity that we’ve assumed—at times it feels like it has obliterated all other identities!—and it’s natural to feel validated, encouraged, and protected each time our little ones seem to need our help. Even though our head reminds us that we’re supposed to get out of their way, our heart just can’t keep from meddling.

Introducing my daughter’s new favorite book: Little Red Henry (Ages 3-6), by author Linda Urban and illustrator Madeline Valentine. I challenge you to find a preschooler who won’t instantly relate to this tale of a little boy, the youngest of three, whose well-intentioned but incessantly doting family never lets him do anything himself. (The title is a nod to the moralistic fable, The Little Red Hen, about the bread-making hen whom no one will help—only here, it’s the opposite.)

The book’s opener is priceless:

Every since time began,
Mama and Papa and Mem and Sven had loved and cuddled
and smooched and squeezed their little redheaded Henry.
They had made his breakfast and picked out his clothes and
ferried him here and there, and if he hadn’t gotten so big,
he might never have known the feeling of the
earth under his feet, they had carried him about so.

Frankly, little redheaded Henry was sick of it.

Despite his green footie pajamas—clearly several sizes too small for him—Henry starts asserting himself. When all four of his family members try to spoon feed him breakfast and wipe down his face, he respectfully informs them, “No, thank you, I can do it myself.” And he does—albeit with spills and smudges aplenty.

"Little Red Henry" by Linda Urban & Madeline Valentine

When Henry’s family races him to the bathroom, elbowing each other out of the way in an attempt to brush his “widdle toofers,” Henry holds them off: “I can do it myself.” And he does, even without being able to see his full face in the mirror.

"Little Red Henry" by Linda Urban & Madeline Valentine

When it’s time to get dressed, Henry rejects the various options that his family presents. “I can choose them myself.” And if you haven’t by now fallen in love with our befuddled but determined young hero, this double-page spread of Henry’s private fashion show will unequivocally win you over. My daughter dies over these two pages. (Before settling on cargo shorts, a graphic tee, and a handkerchief scarf, Henry dons a tutu, a giant woolen poncho, and a superman costume.)

"Little Red Henry" by Linda Urban & Madeline Valentine

I recently read this book aloud to Emily’s class, a mixed-age Montessori classroom with 2-6 year olds. Before I launched into the story, I posed a question to the group: “Are there things that you think you can do yourself, but that your parents insist on doing for you?” I wasn’t sure what kind of a response I’d get—or whether the children would need more context to understand what I was even asking.

Immediately, three-quarters of the hands in the room shot up. Every single one of them had a unique answer. “Brush my hair!” “Wash my dish!” “Pack my lunch!” “Paint my nails!” Each time a child would offer up a response, several others would furiously nod their heads in agreement. It was like, all their lives, they had been waiting for someone to ask this question.

So, what happens if we get out of our children’s way? If we sit on our hands, if we run the risk of being late or embarrassed or driven to the point of insanity—if, instead, we let our children begin to do things by and for themselves?

It turns out that Henry is a quick study. By the story’s end, he can pour his own milk and do all the buttons on his big-kid PJs.


But this is also when all hell breaks loose. Henry may be as proud as a peacock, but the rest of the family is miserable.

They were listless. Adrift. Without Henry to do things for, they had no purpose.

Henry looks up at his family and poses the age-old question, “What do you want to do?” And just like that, all those dusty, cast-off identities are back! Mom starts wall papering; Dad starts tap dancing. Big Brother plays the violin; Big Sister gets out her coloring book. And Henry, smock tied neatly behind him, stands before an easel with a big fat paintbrush in his hand. Together yet separate. Each family member beating to his own inner drum.

"Little Red Henry" by Linda Urban & Madeline Valentine

But let’s not get carried away. As the story’s ending goes on to remind us, while there is some help that our kids can do without, there are other times when our children really, really want us. When they still need what only we can give.

“Could somebody please tuck me in?”

"Little Red Henry" by Linda Urban & Madeline Valentine

Reading, singing, snuggling, whispering sweet nothings into their ears before they fall asleep: these are the things no parent willingly wants to stop doing for their children. And, at least for the foreseeable future, it looks promising that we’ll still be invited to do so.

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Review copy provided by Candlewick. All opinions are my own. affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

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