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Letting Our Children Fail (Part I)

3 minute read

I once watched a mother overseeing her toddler as he lurched around a playground. She was hovering over him, bending down in order to shield him from every obstacle, warning him of every danger and catching him every time he tripped. She was the embodiment of the helicopter parent.

It’s easy for many of us to mock helicopter parents, to laugh at stories of parents who barge into their grown children’s workplace and confront their offspring’s boss with a demand that their child be promoted. Or parents whose children don’t learn to tie their shoelaces until they’re ten. Or children who are so over scheduled with tutorials, sports, dancing or music lessons that they have no time to play. But even those of us who don’t go to extremes probably find ourselves quite protective in one area or another: focused on ensuring our children’s success in academia, or sports, or social relationships or extra-curricular activities. We may not helicopter our child’s entire life, but in areas we (or they) care about, we do our very best to ensure success.

Now, it’s self evident that there’s nothing wrong with trying to help your child be successful and happy. However, if we regularly find ourselves anxious about our child, frustrated or even angry, or if we notice our child responding with the same emotions, it’s worth examining what’s going on and questioning whether we’re helping or hurting.

Here are five reasons why we can find ourselves being over-protective.

Overestimating the cost of failure

The world is a competitive place, and it’s easy to buy into the prevailing wisdom among our friends. And that prevailing wisdom often says that our children have to go to a good university and study something that will lead to a good job. And to get into a good university, they have to have gone to a good secondary school, succeeded academically and have done lots of extracurricular activities. To get into that good secondary school, they must have gone to a good primary school and studied hard, and so on, right back to the admissions interview for kindergarten. We see the unbroken line between being successful in life and the math test tomorrow that our child STILL hasn’t started studying for. Everything becomes an input to that end goal, and failure in any area becomes a threat to the goal. We ignore the fact that academic success often does not lead to financial success, and even less often to happiness.

Finding it too painful to tolerate our child’s feelings

It’s difficult to watch our child experience failure, rejection and disappointment. It’s tolerable when it’s related to something unimportant, but when it’s in an area that matters, it can be crushing. Seeing our child rejected by the college they wanted to attend, excluded from a friendship group, cut from a sports team….we can see the pain in our child’s face. And to avoid seeing that, we step in and do our best to ensure it doesn’t happen. We ignore the fact that failure builds resilience, which in turn helps our child become successful and happy.

Putting ourselves in our child’s shoes

Sometimes having a child can feel like a do-over for our own life. We all promise ourselves we won’t make the same mistakes our parents made with us, and we try to give our children the things we didn’t get. We don’t want our children to suffer or fail in the way we did. And while that impulse is heart warming, it can lead us astray. We can become over sensitive to failures, projecting feelings onto our children that they don’t have. We remember the sting of failure and how it affected our self esteem, but our child’s self esteem may be driven by something entirely different. And so we frantically try to protect our child from something we only think they’ll feel.

Tying our self esteem to the success of our child

For those of us whose primary role is in the home, it is difficult to avoid doing this. Our social circle consists of other homemakers, and status is often given to the parent with the brightest, most popular and successful child. Why? Because there are enough parenting books out there to sink several ships, and the message from them is clear: good parenting leads to good children. So any failure on the part of our child is a threat to how we feel about ourselves. Given that, it’s no wonder that so many of us go to extremes to ensure our children don’t fail.

Needing to keep our child close

It’s a bittersweet truth that if things go well, parents eventually work themselves out of a job. (With luck, of course, we form a relationship of equals with our adult children which more than compensates for the fact that we no longer get to change their diapers.) But for many of us, our relationship with our child is one of, if not the most intense and close relationships we’ll ever have. We’re involved with every moment of that child’s life when they’re a baby, somewhat less when they’re in school, even less when they’re a teenager, and very little when they’re away at university or have begun working. Persuading ourselves that the child needs our protection even into young adulthood is a way of staying close to the child — even though the process of staying close may cause anxiety and conflict.

Just being aware of these five factors will help reduce their power over our feelings and behavior. But there’s a way to frame the issue of having our children experience failure that can help defeat these five factors — and make our own lives, and the lives of our children easier in the process. But that will have to wait until my next article.


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