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Letting Our Children Fail (Part II)

3 minute read

My last article was about the reasons we can find ourselves trying particularly hard to protect our children from failure and painful experiences. It’s entirely natural that we do so. But sometimes we get signals that things have gotten out of hand, and that our efforts are damaging ourselves or our child, or both. Perhaps our spouse, friend or family member has told us that we’re over protective. Or our child is responding negatively to our efforts. Or we ourselves find the pressure of protecting them is making us unhappy or frustrated.

And we decide to change. We do our best to back off, give our child more freedom, less pressure and stop trying to make sure everything goes well. But we find that the pain of watching things go wrong in our child’s life causes us great distress. And so we’re caught in a bind, where whatever we do causes frustration, unhappiness, conflict or stress.

One way to cut this Gordian knot is to reframe the way we think about children, success and ourselves. So here are three ways of thinking differently that can help.

Actions Have Consequences

This may seem obvious, but it’s not — children have to learn this fact of life. If they don’t dress warmly on a winter day, they’ll be cold. If they’re not careful when they run they’ll fall down. If they don’t study, they’ll do poorly. Children are like little researchers — they’re constantly testing to see what happens as a result of their actions. By protecting them from the consequences, by ensuring that those bad things don’t happen, we deprive them of the opportunity to learn. So when you let your child fail, or experience rejection or disappointment, you’re not falling down on your job as a parent — you’re giving your child the chance to learn how the world works.

Of course, children are not very good at learning in situations where the consequences are distant in time from their actions. It doesn’t help to tell a 7 year old that unless they do their homework regularly, they might not get a good job in the future. So parents impose intermediate consequences; for example, that not doing homework results in the immediate loss of a privilege. Letting children experience this kind of consequence is a better way to learn — and one that doesn’t involve life changing consequences.

So when we see our child making bad choices and having to endure the consequences, instead of beating up on ourselves for not helping, we should congratulate ourselves for giving our children an opportunity to learn one of life’s most important lessons.

Grades Are Less Important Than Ability To Delay Gratification

Academic success is to children what financial success is to adults: an easy to understand scorecard to judge how we’re doing and how our children are doing. And it’s a scorecard that is unrelated to long term happiness. But we often fall into the trap of thinking that our child’s academic success is setting them up for a happy and successful life. Yet the world has plenty of academically gifted people who are miserable — and unsuccessful to boot.

When scientists studied people from childhood through adulthood, they found that those who were able to resist temptation better as four year olds had, as adolescents, better SAT results and were less distractible, were more self confident, planned better, resisted stress better and had more self control. As adults they used risky drugs less often, were better able to pursue their goals, were more resilient, had better interpersonal relationships and were less overweight.

So when we focus on our children’s grades, we may be helping our children less than if we helped them to learn how to delay gratification. (See here for information on how to do that.)

We Are More Than Just Our Children

For some of us, raising our child is the most important and meaningful thing we’ve ever done. Our identity and self esteem become tied up with the success and happiness of our child. And so every failure and disappointment on their part cuts us as deeply as it does them — perhaps more deeply. If our primary role in life is parent, and our success or failure in that role is determined by the success or failure of the child that is the product of our parenting, it can feel as though our child’s failure means that we ourselves — our whole life — is a failure. And that is a terrifying feeling, one which can produce anger, fear, sadness and terrible anxiety.

So recognizing that our lives are more than just our children is important to our mental health, and to the mental health of our children. (Children are very aware of the emotions of their parents, and are very sensitive to what they themselves have done to cause those emotions.) We need to keep in mind that we have many other roles and will do many other things that define who we are and our ability to successfully navigate our lives. This will make us more resilient in the face of our children’s inevitable setbacks. And when children sense our own resilience, our own ability to stay calm in the face of their setbacks, that reassures them that difficulties aren’t a cause for paralyzing anxiety, but instead can be steadily overcome.


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