The Dr. Russell Approach to Parenting

As of yet, I don’t have children, but one of my major life goals is to become a mother — and if I ever find a husband with whom I can share this enormous responsibility, I intend to parent like Dr. Russell.

For those of you who aren’t well-versed in the works of Robert A. Heinlein, Dr. Russell is the father of the protagonist in Have Space Suit, Will Travel, a juvenile science fiction novel that begins with the following exchange:

“Dad,” I said, “I want to go to the Moon.”

“Certainly,” he answered and looked back at his book. It was Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, which he must know by heart.

I said, “Dad, please! I’m serious.”

This time he closed the book on a finger and said gently, “I said it was all right. Go ahead.”

“Yes… but how?”

“Eh?” He looked mildly surprised. “Why, that’s your problem, Clifford.”

The students at my day job are good kids, by and large; I run into genuine attitude problems very rarely.  Still, many collapse when faced with even a mild challenge. If it takes more than an instant to figure out how to solve, say, a geometry problem, they give up and ask for help. They don’t look back through their notes. They don’t start writing information down. They just — stop. Indeed, grappling with a difficult problem on their own will bring some of my students to tears.

What these kids are manifesting here, I feel, is the impact of helicopter parenting. When we wrap our children in cotton wool and shield them from adversity, we don’t get young adults who are happy and self-sufficient. On the contrary, we get young adults who are perpetually anxious and afraid of failure — hardly a recipe for success in either college or the working world, where self-motivated risk-takers are more likely to be rewarded.

So if and when I have kids, I’m going to adopt “Why, that’s your problem, Clifford” as my own personal motto. Once I teach my kids the critical basics – i.e., the three R’s and some basic research and self-help skills – any and all questions and requests will be handled the Dr. Russell way:

  • “Mom, what does [insert word] mean?” “How can we find out?”
  • “Mom, I don’t understand this math problem.” “Did you try looking at your notes in your math notebook?”
  • “Mom, I’m hungry.” “Hmm. What can you do about that?”
  • “Mom, I don’t have any clothes to wear!” “Well, you have this big pile of dirty laundry you can do something about…”
  • “Mom, can we get the new [insert cool YA series] book for my Kindle?” “Sure. Do you have the money to pay for it?” [beat] “Hmm. Guess you have to go out and do a little yard work for the neighbors.”

Mind you, this doesn’t mean I will be completely hands-off. As G.K. Chesterton observed, we need boundaries to feel secure — especially when we’re young. I will be establishing rules and expectations that carry consequences if they’re not met. I will also be setting a baseline homeschooling curriculum because there are certain things I feel every child should learn. But beyond that? As soon as possible, I’m going to get out of the way.  

Admittedly, part of the reason this approach appeals to me is that, given my rheumatoid arthritis, I just don’t have the spoons for over-protective modern parenting. But more importantly, I think pulling back and allowing my kids to figure things out on their own sends the implicit message that I trust them and believe them to be fully capable — which, I hope, will encourage them to stretch themselves intellectually and become the personally responsible, enterprising citizens America desperately needs.  

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