Why Parents Can’t Let Their Children Fail

Last month I spent two weekends and two evenings essentially doing my son’s science project for him. There was no way in hell he was doing that project on his own, and so I stepped up. I couldn’t let him fail, not this time.

Meanwhile I’ve just finished reading Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail – the latest rant on helicopter parenting on The Atlantic. While I agree whole heartedly with the premise that kids can’t be protected from life, that they need to experience rejection and skinned knees and all – I don’t think it’s that simple, particularly when it comes to schoolwork.

There are reasons why we hear stories about moms doing their highschool kid’s papers for them. I don’t think those moms are crazy.  They didn’t achieve helicopter parent lift-off on their own. Their minds have been messed with, as they have been cultivated as mothers in an mine filled environment that places unrealistic expectations on both parents and their children. They are as much the victims of mixed messaging as their children. Fail, don’t fail. Be involved, don’t be so involved.

I should know. I’m standing in that minefield.

Let’s acknowledge an essential parenting truth/vulnerability: That F on the paper? It’s not just your child’s F. It’s yours, and the stakes are higher. That’s what this is really about. When your child gets an F, it’s easy to feel like you failed too. You failed at parenthood. You failed  at LIFE.

This is where the second guessing begins, and not just your own. It’s likely this exists outside your head, and is discussed by others in your community. The cautionary tale of the kid that fails… You, dear parent, should have done more. Drilled them. Studied with them. Hired a tutor.

It’s easy for a parent to feel on trial because in many communities, they are. Fail to turn in a permission slip, or let your child come to school without a hot breakfast? Tsk tsk. Nevermind that your child overslept their alarm and dropped their permission slip in a puddle in the parking lot. If they forget their lunch a couple of times or leave their sweatshirt in the car? Someone might call CPS.

I do buck the judgement tide. I insist on letting my kids fail. I bear the pain with them.  We fail as one, in that we face judgement together. Their scars are fresher. Mine are calloused over.

Nevertheless… I did the science project with him. For him. At best he rode shotgun.

My son  is 8 years old and incredibly bored at school  this year. His teachers probably don’t like me, as I’ve complained without doing my “good parent” time volunteering in the classroom.  The teachers find it odd and troubling that my son is so disengaged, that he put his head down on the desk to take a nap mid class on occasion. They are frankly surprised when he gets 100% on a test because, they tell me, they didn’t really think he was listening. He probably wasn’t. Shame on them for not issuing a challenge he could step up to and stay awake for.

It would be a perfect chance for him to experience failure.

This disconnect that my son is experiencing, was the subject of an hour long meeting with the school a couple of weeks ago. There I sat, in front of the academic tribunal, asked to defend my son’s checked out behavior and complete lack of  checked in homework.

The looks I faced had a tinge of concern, but more than a slathering of judgement. Something was clearly wrong with my son’s study habits, and possibly, probably, with my parenting.

I’ve been to this rodeo before, and so has my husband. We both experienced similar phases in our own childhood, and we went through this with our daughter, at the same age. It’s where we learned as relatively smart kids we could slack off in class, and pull it out for the test. A dangerous and not necessarily true belief. If ever there was a time for a slap of reality – this was it.  Aha! I pointed out… This was a perfect time for a lesson in failure. 

But how can my son successfully fail when any failure he faces will be quickly assigned to me?

“It’s your most important  job,” the teacher’s emphasized, with  pointed clarity, “to establish your son’s study habits now. For LIFE. For the rest of his life.”

Cut to  a Wednesday night where I am busy helping to tape photos to a poster board, all but using a  level to make sure they go on straight.

The 3 rd grade assignment was on “Erosion and Weathering.”  My son was tasked to:

  • Take a minimum of 10 photos of  4 different types of weathering and erosion
  • Include himself in at least four of the shots (I think this perhaps was a measure to ensure that we parents didn’t complete the entire assignment on our own.)
  • Print and mount the photos on posterboard
  • Label the photos with the exact address, date and time of each

We spent two weekends hiking and trekking around Orange County to get these shots. Our son was not particularly enthusiastic about the assignment but thankfully was thrilled about the family time. He dutifully  identified and discussed the erosion and weathering examples we found, but more as a matter of rote than interest.

“Let’s get that out of the way so we can talk about more interesting stuff.”

We identified a Golden Eagle. He learned how to whistle while walking up a bike trail. The nature walk turned into an awesome hike.

We spent a third weekend day developing all the photos at Costco which was exciting to my son only because it meant ice cream while we waited. Then there was the painful hour I supervised while he wrote out the exact locations and dates of each photo (from my memory), as indicated by the assignment rubric.

My son groaned as he filled out the index cards in his scritchy scratchiest print. “Are we done yet?”

He took no pride in his work. He grew frustrated as he erased and rewrote and rewrote with proper capitalization, again and again. Finally, after he’d suffered enough, I agreed to type up the titles for him.

For him?  Not really.  Down the slope I slide. We’d come so far on this project… I wasn’t about to let him get a C on my/our work for bad handwriting. I consoled myself with the knowledge that he wrote out everything before I typed it. Certainly that this was what all the other parents were doing that night as well. Some in fancy fonts.

I hushed my doubts with the spoon-fed notion I’d received… This taste of  assisted “success” would somehow set him up for future successes.

But I knew that was bull, bull, bull. My son could care less. Everyone failed. The teacher failed to assign an assignment that my son could actually complete independently without help, and thus own as his own success or failure. My son failed to really take an interest in the assignment, as the part that he could do independently (ie identify the weathering/erosion, write cards and tape the photos to a board) seemed boring to him, and I failed to let him fail, though I probably should have. He might not care about the assignment but he could have cared more about the work he was required to turn in.

I kept picturing all those faces around the table, lecturing me about my son’s future. Lecturing me that I cannot let him fail. I was overwhelmed at how keenly I felt the pressure to be a helicopter parent, even as I knew it went against my own principles.

We have all failed and it’s a little tragic. We’re not only robbing our kids of the painful lessons of failure, we’re robbing them of the joy of their own success.

For sure it won’t be long before there is another opportunity for my son or another one of my kids to fail. Lucky for my them, I won’t always have the image of the tribunal quite so fresh in my mind. Life and work and the sheer madness of four kids in four far flung schools will intrude upon my thoughts, making it impossible for me to complete the assignment he cannot do on his own. I might even forget about my 8-year-old’s homework entirely for a week or so.

I will let my kids fail, again. Hopefully my kids and their teachers will return the favor, resisting the urge to place the blame of their failures on me, so that we can all succeed in the future.


Article Posted 5 years Ago

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