Failing is an important experience for kids to have, yet letting them fail goes against the central tenet of being a parent: making sure our children succeed in life. Resilience and problem solving skills only develop when kids have to work things out on their own —whether it be how to tie their shoes, ride a skateboard or apply to college.
But letting our kids screw up is easier said than done, right? Allowing them to be less, or do less, than their absolute best causes us, as parents, to hyperventilate and break out in a sweat.
Even though our impulse is to step in and rescue them from failure, when we do, we’re actually doing our kids more harm than good. Julie Lythcott-Haims, author of the book, How to Raise an Adult, understands the fears that put us into overdrive. As a parent of teens, and particularly as the former Dean of Freshmen at Stanford, she’s seen the harmful impact of micromanaging and overparenting on kids firsthand.
How can we step back from being over zealous and over involved, and let go of our tight grip on determining our children’s success? First, we have to be ready and willing to examine what’s at the root of our anxiety, and to take an honest look at how we define success. Are grades and test scores at the top of the list? Do we believe that only the “right” college education can ensure our kids will make it in the world? Are we trading away a less structured childhood full of self-discovery, of learning to fall down and get back up again, to ensure an (unguaranteed) promise of security in the far-off future?
Lythcott-Hanes says,“When we raise kids this way they end up leading a checklisted childhood.” And, by the time they get to high school, they’ve internalized our anxieties, devoting most of their time and energy, and lack of sleep, to what’s required to get into the “right” college. She describes kids under this kind of pressure as breathless, brittle, burned out, and sees them “withering under high rates of anxiety and depression”.
It’s never too soon (or too late) to practice allowing the “worst” to happen. What if the homework doesn’t get turned in, the math test isn’t studied for, the science project is half-baked or the sought-after college has to come off the list? What if we could recognize, and stop ourselves from falling into catastrophic thinking—a “D” on the spelling test will undoubtedly lead to a failing grade which will bring his GPA down, which will… and on and on.
Failing and falling short are critical forms of learning. Allowing them to happen gives our kids the chance to learn how to handle consequences, navigate disappointment and deal with dashed expectations— skills essential to becoming a successful adult.
To read more about Julie Lythcott-Haines philosophy, check out her website and her TED talk, How to Raise Successful Kids Without Overparenting.