Dr Judith Locke: Why parents should stop being their child’s Sherpa

Have you heard of Sherpa parents - 'helping' by doing the hard work kids should be doing themselves? Dr Judith Locke makes a compelling case for parents to back off.

Recently, I saw a mother taking her two upper-primary-aged children to school, on a pavement with a steep incline. The mother had the children’s schoolbags on each of her shoulders and was pushing the two scooters also. The children were both standing on the scooters, doing nothing but holding the handlebars. And I thought, ‘That mother’s not walking them to school, she’s Sherpa’ing them to school’.

Sherpas are Himalayan people, skilled in mountaineering, who often aid Everest climbers by carrying a lot of their gear and guiding them. Many people argue that any ascent fully catered by Sherpas, is not really climbing in the true sense of the word, because most of the hard work is done by Sherpas.

I see parents often acting as Sherpas for their children by doing most of the labouring work. Carrying the child’s schoolbags is one very common example. And it is not just when they are young. I’ve seen parents of high school children carry their child’s bag in and out of school, while the child strolls along, unencumbered by their responsibilities.

Parents literally taking on the load for their child is problematic because it mucks up the status system in the family. Children can easily start to think that their own needs are far more important than other people’s, and that their parents are there to do all of the shlepping for them. I often see these children speak rudely to their parents, almost as if they are just the maid or butler.

But it particularly galls me when parents are doing most of the hard work for their child’s success. You can see this when parents take on the majority of work for their child’s assignments, by doing the research, organising their essay structure, and over-editing their child’s work to be much more representative of the parent’s ability than that of the child.

Another area I see this is in a teen’s Year 12 year. Some parents, eager to enable their child to do well in their ATAR scores, start to take on Sherpa responsibilities of doing all of the child’s share of family chores during the year. These parents might take time off in the child’s exam week to cook them breakfast every day and be there for them.

The big problem when parents Sherpa their child to an Everest level essay result or ATAR score is that it ends up not really being the child’s victory. The child can start to count on abilities they don’t really have, and start to develop an ego that doesn’t really match their skills.

This will mean that the first time they take on a challenge outside of their parent’s assistance, it might feel much more onerous. Unused to juggling a range of responsibilities while taking on tasks, they might be more inclined to withdraw from the challenge. It is perhaps no surprise that children who did very well at school, might drop out at the earliest difficult time of their university course, or the first time they have a tricky week in their new job.

It’s understandable that parents want to carry their child’s load, but not helpful to them. You can show your encouragement by supporting them through your care and presence, but resist the urge to take on some of their responsibilities, as you do them no favours. Keep them doing their fair portion of family chores and let them do their own assignment.

It might be a smaller mountain they end up climbing, but the accomplishment and sense of triumph will truly be theirs alone.

Takeaway for parents
Other areas you should resist Sherpa’ing your child to allow them to take on more responsibility.

  • In late primary and high school, children should be making their breakfast and lunch every morning.
  • As often as you can, get your child to pack and unpack their school bag. If they’re too young, they should be involved a little, ‘What else do you need for school tomorrow?’
  • If your child forgets to bring something to school, then they face the consequence. Parents shouldn’t be their back-up luggers.
  • Older children should be sorting out the issues with their phone, such as calling the provider if there are any problems.
Related article: How over-parenting limits your child's potential

About Dr Judith Locke

© Judith Locke

Dr Judith Locke is a Clinical Psychologist and child wellbeing specialist who presents sessions for parents and teachers at schools around Australia, New Zealand and internationally. For more of Judith’s work read her parenting books, The Bonsai Child or The Bonsai Student. You can also follow her Facebook page, Confident and Capable.

This column originally appeared in the Sunday Mail on 28.02.21.

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