It’s crucial that we, as parents, allow our children to make mistakes and fail and figure out how to recover from them. We can’t rush in and fix every problem, whether it be forgotten homework, an awkward social encounter, or not getting a part in the school play.
We know from research that building children’s self-esteem and self-worth is much less about praise and gold stars and trophies for everyone and much more about creating resilience. Children, who know how to screw up and fail, try again.
“While we do not want our children to face ongoing failure, to attempt to overprotect them and rush in whenever we fear they might fail at a task robs them of an important lesson, namely that mistakes are experiences from which to learn,” writes Robert Brooks and Sam Goldstein in their book Nurturing Resilience in Our Children. “It also communicates another subtle or perhaps not-so-subtle message to a child: We don’t think you are strong enough to deal with obstacles and mistakes.”
It’s not that resilient children don’t feel bad about their mistakes and failures, but they don’t see themselves as failures. Too often children who think that messing up means they’re losers quit tasks, blame others, and deny responsibility.
But, as we know, nothing in parenting is black and white. It’s fine to theoretically say that all children must make mistakes and fail, but when it’s our children, all that great insight can go out the window. Or as my sister said when her nine-year-old was having a particularly tough baseball season, “I just don’t want to be there when he strikes out.”
What parent hasn’t felt he or she would do anything to stop the tears? Or even worse, knowing there’s something we can do and chose not to because our son or daughter has to learn a lesson.
So here are some thoughts that I keep in mind during the treacherous journey of parenthood:
There are no absolutes. We shouldn’t always rescue our children from their mistakes, but that doesn’t mean we never should. Author Barbara Coloroso helpfully divides parents into brick-wall parent, jellyfish parent, and backbone parent.
The brick-wall parent rigidly adheres to views of when to help. Never deliver the forgotten band instrument or science report. The jellyfish parent scurries over to school, French horn in hand, as soon as the call comes. The backbone parent takes the situation into consideration. Is the child constantly forgetting? Then she needs to learn Mom or Dad isn’t always there as a back-up. But if it’s an occasional thing, then why not bring over the lunch left on the kitchen table? After all we all forget things sometimes.
Try (and I said try—it’s not always easy in the heat of the moment) to criticize your child in an appropriate manner. Avoid the words “always” and “never,” as in “you’re always so lazy and never ready when you need to be.” Instead attempt to stick to the specific offense, “You seem to be late to school because you don’t get your backpack ready the night before. How can we resolve this? Do you need me to check with you in the evening? If you don’t want me to, you need to deal with it—but if you’re late to school again, we are taking away your TV privileges for the week.”
In the second version, you’re addressing the specific problem, telling the child he or she needs to figure out and to resolve it—while giving a few suggestions—and warning of specific consequences if the problem is not fixed.
Work on focusing on the process, not just the results. When we’re too worried about the good grade or the sports success, we lose sight of what we’re trying to really teach our children. We start buying into the false notion that if they don’t do well in every area of their life, they won’t get into a good college, land a good job and have the great life we want them to have. We lose sight that one of our most important jobs as parents is to help teach our children how to successfully navigate the inevitable ups and downs of life. Children who aren’t allowed to fail or resolve their own problems grow into adults who fall apart at the first setback.
And guess what? If we want to look long-term at our children’s future success, increasingly employers say they aren’t necessarily looking for the best student or the one that piles award upon award, but rather those who can show they know how to goof up and recover how to learn from mistakes and successfully move forward.
© 2011 Alina Tugend, author of Better By Mistake: The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong
By Alina Tugend for Not Just The Kitchen