Letting children fail helps them succeed
Parents instinctively try to comfort children when they are hurt, and to insulate them from disappointment and failure. But rescuing children from the inevitable consequences of life won’t help them grow and develop into capable, responsible adults.
Let kids skin a knee or talk to a stranger
When my daughter was about 5 years old, I noticed how sheltered her childhood was compared to mine. At that age I walked to school, played on public playgrounds and rode my bike everywhere—without protective family members in tow.
As a mother, I mimicked others of my generation by making sure all child-safety measures were in place 24/7. I wanted to be on the “good” mom team. How would I score if something happened on my watch?
Eventually, I realized that if my child was going to become a confident and self-sufficient person, I had to let go—a little at a time.
I began reading books on the topic. I learned that the number of accidents suffered by today’s children at play is not significantly less than it was in the 1970s. What has increased since then is safety advocacy, media sensationalism and lawsuits, all of which create fear, mistrust and hyper-vigilance among parents.
To better function in life, experts believe children should have the opportunity to learn from mistakes, assess risk, develop personal coping skills, accept consequences, be bored, experience disappointment and solve problems themselves—all within a realistic set of safety rules and boundaries.
Consider giving your child the freedom to skin a knee, get a sunburn, take a city bus, roam the neighborhood and talk to strangers. Sure, you will worry. But you will always worry, even when your child is 50.
Let kids solve their own problems
My 4-year-old daughter climbs to the top of a rock wall at the playground and struggles to find a way down. I can rescue her by letting her jump into my arms, or guide her while she problem-solves on her own.
As parents, our days are inundated with situations like these. The glass sits too close to the edge of the table. Our kids want to use a fork to eat soup. Thoughts race through our heads: That glass is going to fall! You can’t eat soup with a fork!
If we act on these thoughts, we have done our job as parents, right? No messes, no failures, no “owies.” Our kids smile at us and skip off happily to their next adventure—problem solved. But who really solved the problem?
We need to guide our children down that rock wall. Let the glass fall and break, then teach them how to clean it up. Let them learn that soup is hard to eat with a fork. If we are too quick to rescue, we rob them of crucial opportunities to learn and become independent. Allowing failure is difficult, but important.
The walls my children will have to climb as adults will be bigger and more daunting than those on the playground. Guidance—not rescue—will teach them problem-solving skills for the challenges ahead.
Let kids face consequences
“Parental overprotection” typically conjures up images of young children coddled by overly solicitous parents who shield their children from minor emotional or physical hurts. But parents also face two other types of overprotection.
The first is over-enrichment. With today’s emphasis on selective colleges, efforts to boost academic standings begin with in utero exposure to Mozart followed by intensive tutoring in school. Once children obtain that prized college acceptance, some cannot manage without help from parents or tutors. This can cause stress, anxiety, depression, substance abuse and poor grades.
The second is reluctance to let children face the consequences of their own errant behaviors. Adolescents test limits by breaking rules or experimenting with drugs or alcohol. Some parents oppose disciplinary actions imposed by schools or law-enforcement officials. Reluctant to allow any blemish on their children’s “resumes,” parents bail them out of trouble. The result can be higher-risk behaviors, sometimes with disastrous consequences.
Today’s parents should try to be realistic about their own expectations for a child’s achievement and limit enrichment activities that build dependence on others. Allow children to take on what they can handle independently and without fear.