When the Hardest Thing to do is Nothing

I’m a problem-solver.

A can-do kind of person. I take the bull by the horns and make things happen. None of which helps me when it comes to my daughter and her friendship challenges.

Once we have babies we transform into People Who Get Stuff Done, regardless of who we were before. There is no such thing as being the new mother of a squalling baby and sitting around all day. Whether you’re the parent of a newborn, a busy toddler or, a school-age child or a teenager, the job as a mother never ends. There are never enough hours in the day to get things done, even a day when I clean a dozen loads of laundry, prepare a dozen plates of food, break up about a dozen fights between my children and make a dozen phone calls. I remain a Person Who Gets Stuff Done.

And so, when my daughter comes home from school in tears, with tales of what transpired at recess and lunch that day, I want to Do Something. Know what I’ve learned though? In many ways, the best thing to do is nothing.

Usually, the first thing I want to do is tell her what she should do. (Mistake number one.) Next, I feel like calling up the parents of the girls at school to tell them what they should do. (Obviously, mistake number two.) And on a really bad day, I want to call the principal and tell her what she should do. (The biggest mistake of all.)

It’s completely non-intuitive to us caring, loving, high-achieving parents. But truly, the best thing we can do to help is bite our tongues and sit on our hands, and do what feels like nothing.

So what does nothing look like?

Doing nothing means holding my daughter while she cries or rants, letting her pour out her feelings and opinions in a torrent of angry words. No matter that I feel certain her perception of the situation is not accurate. It doesn’t help to tell her that. I’ve learned it only shuts her down and makes her angry with me.

Doing nothing means active listening. Not agreeing with her or telling her she’s right, but rather saying things like “wow, it must have really hurt when she said that.” Or “I can see why you thought she didn’t want you to sit with them at lunch.” And, one of my favorites, “that must be so hard.” It’s amazing how statements like this draw her out further.

Doing nothing means asking questions. Not the kind of questions that thinly disguise my opinions (“why in the world would you do that?”), but rather questions that make her think about what happened that upset her, how she felt about it, and what she might do differently next time. Questions like “did she actually say that to you or did you assume that’s what she was thinking?” Or “how did it make you feel when they went to sit at lunch without you?” And “how do you think you might handle that differently if it happens again?”

My wisdom on the matter is unfortunately hard won. I earned some of it as a girl myself, crying to my mother about how my best friend hurt me that day (a woman who is my best friend to this day). My memory of those times is crystal clear: my mom stroking my back, murmuring sympathetically and talking to me about how challenges make us stronger people.

And I can credit my mom as well for teaching me how to be an active listener, like when I call her up in tears after my daughter has unloaded on me, only to have my own mother gently remind me through her example, and suggestion, to validate my daughter’s feelings without passing judgment on her behavior.

Learning how to do nothing has also been the result of my involvement with GLI, and from reading Rachel Simmons’ Odd Girl Out, slowly helping me come round to understanding that the best thing we can do is equip our daughters to work out conflict and show leadership on their own, without their parents swooping in.

I’m not saying it’s easy, or that I’m even good at it. More than once my frustration or anger has gotten in the way of doing nothing, only to result in saying something I wish I hadn’t.

It’s a strange kind of discipline for us Always-On Moms. My generation of mothers was raised to believe we could do it all and have it all, but unfortunately many have taken that too far, and try to do it all for our kids.

It’s taken me years to realize this, but truly, one of the greatest gifts I can give my daughter is not to do it all for her, but sometimes, to do nothing.


Stacy Pena is the mother of a sixth-grade girl and third-grade boy and is on the board of Girls Leadership Institute. She also blogs for Silicon Valley Moms Blog.

  1. Kelly

    Wonderfully written. I think you may be surprised at how many don’t understand how to properly listen and ask questions in a scenario like this – and yes, “do nothing”.

    Thank you for a great article.

  2. Deborah Reber

    What a great post…thank you! I’m the mother of a five year old who already has some social anxieties with regards to his peers and I find myself having lots of conversations with him trying to sort out what actually happened in a situation that resulted in him feeling the way he does. I constantly feel this huge weight on my shoulders that every challenging situation he encounters should be turned into a teachable moment. Your post is a good reminder that more than anything, our children want to feel heard and validated and understood, and that often means offering less solutions and listening more.


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