Teaching Our Children To Fail

By Vicky Fish

Mother Bear. One of the most stunning discoveries I have made as a mother is the fundamental instinct, which I call Mother Bear, to protect my children from pain, self-doubt, and despair. 

There have been moments—watching a joyful, bounding toddler go splat on his face on a sidewalk, holding a crying boy whose feelings have been repeatedly hurt by another child on the playground, seeing an eager athlete wait to get put in the game—when I am overcome by a powerful, physical instinct to protect, rescue, and fight for my child.

Evolutionarily speaking, the instinct to protect our children from harm is critical to the continuation of the species. Moreover, it is our duty as parents to keep our children safe.  However, the current generation of children may well be the most protected cohort of children in history. 

“There’s so much more emphasis on the kid succeeding and self-esteem, which is important, but it’s almost like it’s gotten out of balance,” said Laura Bailey, R.N. and owner of Neurofeedback Clinic in Baton Rouge, the only certified Neurofeedback clinic in the state. “I just feel there is an imbalance there. It’s like the kids are everything now, versus when I was growing up, the atmosphere and relationships were different.”

Bailey provides brain wave training to people to help get their brains more organized and self-regulated. As a result, she said her young patients’ ability to pay attention in class improves allowing for better performance.  

Bailey said she believes society pressure to succeed plays a major role and acts as a “domino effect” when it comes to the pressure parents place on their children to achieve. 

“And it’s just not in the classroom, it’s also on the soccer field and other places,” she said. “A lot of the kids I deal with are struggling with anxiety and they’re only eight or ten years old. I think parental pressure is part of the cause.” 

Harm vs. help

Despite parents’ best intentions and fears, we may be doing more harm than help. Bailey said some parents want their children to achieve so much to the point that they cripple the child when they step in. 

“You miss out on character building opportunities when you step up and handle the situation for the child,” she said. “There are choices in life and there are consequences for those choices. If you don’t ever have to suffer the consequences what can you learn from it?” 

Dr. Mel Levine, author of Ready or Not, Here Comes Life, said in his book that parents deprive children of “the opportunity to learn the strategic skills of conflict resolution, stress management, negotiation and problem solving,” all of which are essential life skills. As parents, we can be forgiven for wanting the best for our children. 

Benson Kimbrough, licensed professional counselor and licensed marriage and family therapist with River City Psychotherapy in Baton Rouge, said parents can try to diminish the likelihood of failure for their children by being greater participants in their child’s education. But Kimbrough, who is also a nationally certified school counselor, said children are going to fail at some things. 

“There are very few things that every one of us excels at,” he said. “In the real world, we’re not all extraordinary in everything. I think some parents have exceptionally high expectations of their children.”

Kimbrough said parents should let children experience failures. “The child will benefit by realizing that some things are more difficult and some things require more energy or focus.”

“Everything that we attempt is not going to come easily,” he said. “Hence, if a child is able to master that lesson at an earlier age, it makes it easier for the child to accept that not being the very best at something does not mean that the child is still not successful.”

Sometimes they will not be invited to a birthday party or picked for a team, or they will do poorly on a test, whether or not they studied. This provides parents the opportunity to help children evaluate the problem; establish a plan to avoid the problem in the future; or learn to accept that things will not always be in their control.

Additionally, as children become older, part of our job is to get them to a place where they are able to make good decisions and to avoid truly harmful and perhaps permanent mistakes. (Teen pregnancy, drinking and driving, stealing, drug use, conforming to harmful pressure, to name a few of the most terrifying for a parent.)  

Resilient children equal competent adults

Resilient children are hopeful and possess high self-worth, said psychologists and authors Robert Brooks, Ph.D. and Sam Goldstein, Ph.D. in their book, Raising Resilient Children. Moreover, they said resilient children “have developed the ability to solve problems and make decisions and thus are more likely to view mistakes, hardships and obstacles as challenges to confront rather than stressors to avoid.”  

How can we help our children become resilient? 

Be supportive and keep lines of communication open. Accept your children’s mistakes. Sometimes when parents act shocked, it causes children to avoid sharing such issues with their parents.

Don’t always run interference. Clearly, there are times when advocating or mediating for our children with a teacher, coach or friend is necessary. But there are also times when we need to troubleshoot with our child and let them tackle the problem. 

Help children recognize that mistakes are experiences from which to learn. Emphasize that mistakes are not only accepted but expected. 

Encourage problem solving. This means that as parents we should not always tell our children what to do and how to do it. We need to engage them in the process.

Discipline in a way that promotes self-discipline and self-worth. “This means being consistent but not rigid: knowing your children’s capabilities and not punishing them for unrealistic expectations; relying, when possible, on natural, logical consequences rather than arbitrary, punitive measures,” said Goldstein and Brooks.

Accept your own mistakes and failures gracefully. Model for your children how to not only handle these inevitable mistakes and failures, but how to use each and every one of them as a growth opportunity. 

In the end

Ultimately, if all goes well, my children will become adults. They will be making their own choices. I don’t want to set them up for future failure by over protecting them now. I need to let them make mistakes and be there for them when that happens. In fact, maybe we should just take the word “failure” out of it all. It is a continuum, a journey, an evolution. And, believe me, I am learning in leaps and bounds along with them. I know that my “failures” as a parent are moments of intense introspection and offer huge growth for me, if I let myself see them in that light. As Sister Corita Kent, artist, teacher and peace activist, wrote: “Love the moment. Flowers grow out of dark moments. Therefore, each moment is vital. It affects the whole. Life is a succession of such moments, and to live each is to succeed.”

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09 Aug 2016

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