1/31/13

Letting Your Kids Fail . . .

I just read a great piece in The Atlantic titled "Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail." I would strongly encourage any of you who are (currently or aspire to be) parents - no matter the age of your children - to give it a read but here is the summary:

Don't overprotect or over-intrude in to your children's lives to keep them from "harm" . . . it only serves to harm them more in a) their development and b) when troubles do come and you're not there.

We used to call these parents "helicopters" but now we handle it far more sensitively. My secret presumption is that it was realized, a few years ago, that just about ALL parents of just about ALL of the "millennial" generation is guilty of it and - as any Rambo movie will tell you - you can't have too many helicopters in too finite of air space. It gets dicey - fast.

I don't blame parents. It is totally natural and normal. Can we all accept that the main reason we try so hard not to let our kids fail is because - when they do, it is somehow a trickle up failure on us? That we didn't prepare them right/enough? That we didn't do our jobs?

I'll criticize myself here . . . I have a 6 1/2 year old and I constantly find myself intruding. I gasp and shadow hold the milk when she pours a glass. I still help her shampoo her hair when she's missing spots. I will introduce her to other kids on the playground when she doesn't do it quickly enough. I will "fix" her crayon drawings when her attention is distracted (a stool - with TWO legs - come on, kiddo). To elaborate, I don't let her play with matches, forks and electrical outlets, or balls in traffic either. The later examples and the protection of SAFETY (and, by extension life and well being) are not in dispute. That is WHY we are here as parents, I think.

But the earlier examples . . . that is a me problem. I need to get better at it. Because a 6 year old that can't say "hello" to kids her own age and introduce herself and make chit chat is a 16 year old that has no ability, is a 26 year old that doesn't even try, is a 36 year old that . . . you get my point. So she can learn to hit all the spots on her head with her shampoo NOW or tomorrow her hair might not feel quite right and she'll do better the next time.

I can't stress enough how fantastic my parents were. My mother and father, themselves educators who were trained in child development and (loosely) psychology but - more important - had seen hundreds of kids go through stages before they became parents and thousands by the time my brothers and I headed off to college - were very good at letting us fail. I remember, well, the night before a big project was due and disclosing to my parents that I'd not started it and them simply asking what was needed - making sure I had (approximately) the resources in the house and going back to what they were doing only to get up extra early that next morning for quality control. That was a ME problem to rectify. Not their problem. When I became an Eagle Scout, I wanted to let it be a "surprise" to my parents so I was challenged in preparing the paperwork, prepping for the interview and board review and even, frankly, getting to the review on time. I failed my first attempt. Miserably. I told my parents and, while they were honored at the gesture, they were quick to point out it would be all the harder to impress the next time around to get it done.

Even today, as an adult who is a professional and parent - when I struggle with things my parents will talk, ask questions, give advice (generally in the spirit of - you will figure it out, you're smart and we raised you to solve your own problems) and then they will happily help me pick up the pieces when stuff goes bad (like, oh I don't know . . . divorce) with the same general approach . . . what lessons have you learned, how can you fix it, what will you do.

They are not "cold" in any way. The opposite. They are warm, loving, kind, and frankly funny in how they interact with me. They tell me - now that I'm an adult - what life was really like when I was a kid and thought they were touched and blessed with constant happiness and gifts for success and they share with me the troubles and travails of the children of their friends who may have similar experiences behind them, etc. They are wise. And getting wiser. And they inspire me.

I don't know what sort of parent I will be as my daughter gets older. I'd like to think I'll echo my parents and their graces and talents with managing failure and the lessons that came through it but I also know that it will be harder for me - I am not yet comfortable enough with the Father part of myself to realize that I have a smart, self-aware, capable kid who just needs a little failure in her life to rebound from, to give ME the confidence that she's going to be just fine and, by extension, so will I.