It’s that time of year when back-to-school guides are all around us. Should you need tips on what to pack for lunch, how to shop for classroom supplies or even a more enlightened way to ask your kids about their day, you won’t have to look far.
And that’s fine — few parents have raised a child so perfectly dialed in that they can’t benefit from some helpful hints. But one of them is rubbing me the wrong way, and that’s the notion that we need to let our children fail in order to allow them to succeed. It’s hardly a new concept, but I was recently reminded of how firmly I’m in support of trying to prevent my kids from falling down.
“[Helping your kids remember their homework] might feel like you’re being a great parent in the moment, but in the end, it probably makes you feel better rather than helping your kid,” Wichard-Edds writes.
Lahey argues that middle school is a good time to let kids start failing — by not swooping in even if you see it happening — since nothing really matters yet. Except — I think helping build a child’s self-esteem is a process that shouldn’t be interrupted on purpose. To get our children to the point where they don’t need us, they need us to guide them there. They need to learn how to do things the right way, and then by doing so, they’ll want to repeat it.
According to Lahey, though, a child forgetting homework on the kitchen table will nudge them into implementing a system on their own so they don’t leave it behind again. Me? I think we need to teach them how and when to implement a system so they don’t forget it in the first place. Surely there are a few, rare kids who can do this on their own without parental assistance. But why let the others falter while you stand aside, hoping for the best? Why not set them off on a path to competence and independence by instilling good habits in them in the first place?
I’m a big believer in routine. I have my daughters, ages three and six, pick out their clothes for the next day before going to bed at night. In the morning, I have them get up, go to the bathroom, brush their teeth, get dressed and then I do their hair. The more I have them repeat this process, the less they need to be told. In fact, when they think to do any one step on their own, they beam with pride. When my older daughter dawdles, there might not be enough time for me to braid her hair — something that means an awful lot to her. If she’s reminded that time is running out, she hustles so it gets done; the next day she might make a point to tell me that she completed the process more quickly. When she has homework, I explain that it’s “work before play” and I try and help her understand the benefit of delayed gratification. It’s often a struggle, but one that I’m convinced she’ll overcome and be happier for it as she sees the benefits. There’s a benefit for me, too, and that’s seeing my kids’ satisfaction in learning to remember to do these things without being told.
There will be hiccups — and, yes, failures — along the way. I still believe, however, in teaching kids to swim by actually teaching them to swim, not by letting them sink because they’ve gone into the water with zero skills. Why traumatize them? You need to learn good habits in order to differentiate from the bad ones. I don’t hover (too much, anyway). I love. I guide. I nag. I feel it’s all my job. I didn’t have kids so they could flail before they’re developmentally capable of operating independently — and successfully. When they don’t succeed (which does and will continue to happen), I will talk to them about how they can do better next time, and even offer to help again until they can do it on their own.
As my kids get older, my hope is that establishing and maintaining healthy patterns will be rote to them. Whether they’re babysitting, studying or participating in a team sport, I want them to learn now what it means to be responsible to themselves, their family, friends, neighbors, community members and teachers. Not reminding them, prodding them, or showing them how to function strongly and on their own benefits no one in the end — not me as a parent or them as people. Being a good parent doesn’t need to mean overparenting. It means consciously parenting; it means working hard and being consistent so as to raise responsible, aware kids who do the wrong things sometimes while on their way to the right thing.
Lahey argues parents shouldn’t “obsessively check [their] kids’ grades online.” Except — I think intervening when trouble is brewing, and pointing out the opportunity to have them feel good about bringing their grades up is more motivating than feeling deflated and defeated by getting an F. I’m not projecting goals on kids or trying to save them (all no-no’s according to Lahey). Simply put: teaching my kids how to succeed doesn’t mean either they or I have failed; on the contrary, I’d say we all win.
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