When my oldest son was in second grade, he was assigned a dinosaur diorama project. So I found an old shoe box and other assorted materials and let him build away. The result was a reasonable facsimile of prehistoric times – for an eight-year-old, that is.
Several weeks later, I attended a parent-teacher conference and noticed the projects on display. Most were exceptional – meticulous, detailed, beautifully designed. In other words, not the work of second-grade children. When I asked if other parents, perhaps, had played a role, the teacher just sighed. Yes, most of the parents completed the projects along with their kids… or even for their children. She had come to expect this.
I was stunned. Partly by my own naivete, but mostly by the extent of parental involvement. Why was it so critical that their children excel – even on such a relatively minor project?
Much has been written about the importance of building resilience in children, allowing them to fail, and knowing when to stand back and let them struggle. Jessica Lahey, for example, describes parents who insist that their children can do no wrong and who rescue them from any sign of a struggle. Other commentaries also highlight the benefits of learning from failure, struggling with challenging work, and building resilience.
Experience with failure can cause emotional pain, especially if it is viewed as shameful, as a generalized sign of incompetence, or a signal that nothing will improve. Too many adults have been traumatized or shamed by failures of their own, and hope to shield their children from hurt. Yet, if failure is framed as a normal part of growth and development, and as an opportunity for learning and self-awareness, its negative effects are reduced.
As parents, we can help children learn that failure is a normal part of life – it happens to all of us: when we burn the waffles, when we forget our friend’s birthday, or even when we lose an account at work. We can role model how to accept these failures without shame, learn from them, and make changes so that we behave differently in the future.
We can show our children that we are not crushed by failure, even if we feel frustrated or disappointed. We can demonstrate how to acknowledge our role in situations, how to sort out what needs to change, and when to ask for assistance if we can’t solve the problem ourselves.
We can encourage healthy independence in our children. While headlines comparing “helicopter” and “free-range” parenting make good press, most parents rarely fall into these extreme camps. Most choose a middle ground and learn what battles to pick, when to intervene, and that some bumps along the way will help children build resilience and confidence. Finding that balance is never easy, but here are several points to keep in mind:
Respect their feelings
First, acknowledge their pain. This does not mean coddling, dwelling on the negative, or enabling setbacks. It is essential to let your children know you understand and appreciate their suffering. As Brene Brown has noted, the recent cultural and media focus on grit and the redemptive power of failure overlook, “the large swaths of darkness and struggle preceding it.”
We cannot and should not dismiss or minimize our children’s pain in response to any failure experience, regardless of how small it might seem to us. Let them know you understand – and that you will help them move through it and past it.
Help your child reframe the concept of failure. Unfortunately, failure is a big word that carries a powerful punch. We can help our children learn to distinguish between variations on this theme. There are tiny failures – like forgetting to bring lunch to school, medium-sized failures – not finishing an essay on time, and big ones – like failing an entire course. Some sting more than others, but all are opportunities for growth. When failure is viewed as a normal part of life and as an opportunity for learning, it becomes less overwhelming, easier to tackle, and carries less of the shame and embarrassment most associate with it.
Teach coping strategies
Identify the skills your child needs so that failure experiences do not seem as overwhelming. Does he lack confidence? Does she respond to situations in a rigid manner? Is he impulsive and quick to react? Does she worry and “catastrophize” about the future? You can help your child learn to comfort, soothe, distract, seek support, and appropriately discharge feelings.
Resilience arises from competence, and these life skills will help your child develop the confidence and flexibility needed when disappointment strikes. There are many self-help books, websites, and apps available that offer coping strategies. If your child has difficulty acquiring these skills, if you need additional support with implementing them, or if your child is emotionally distressed, working with a licensed mental health professional may be necessary.
Put it in perspective
Your child’s independence and ability to be self-sufficient are the ultimate goals. Keeping this in perspective will help guide you when choices get tough. This is not a “hands-off” policy. Rather, the goal is to help your child achieve independence by setting up situations that will challenge her, creating expectations for success as opposed to perfection, and refusing to “rescue” her from her responsibilities.
You can encourage your child to take academic risks, helping him to appreciate that achievements are more meaningful when they initially seemed out of reach. You can promote the importance of ethics, integrity, cooperation with peers, and taking responsibility for his role in the classroom. Let him know that actions speak more about character than his accomplishments, and that how one behaves is more important than being the best.
Rather than rescuing our children from the latest setback, we serve them well when we encourage and support their independent efforts to tackle their problems. While this often forces us to hold our breath and sit with our own fears as we watch them struggle, it is just one of many challenges we endure as parents. But as long as they are on the path toward growth and development, learning from experience is one of the best opportunities we can provide.