Why Good Parents Let Their Kids Fail – PHOTOS
Failure is an opportunity to realize limits, adjust and learn from mistakes. Here's why kids need to careen, crash, stutter and, ultimately, soar. Browse our photo gallery of some famous 'flops,' too
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When our two children were in grade school, they were assigned a project for Pioneer Days, a weeklong event for third-graders. The project? To create a replica of a mid-1800s structure such as a log cabin, covered wagon or one-room school house.
I remember strolling through the media center on the day parents were invited to view the fruit of all that labor, most of which had been done at home with Popsicle sticks, cardboard and construction paper.
Since their preference had always been to do things on their own, my kids' projects looked like, well, third-grade work, kind of sloppy but kind of cute. But some of the others appeared to have been touched by the genius of Frank Lloyd Wright. Either these third graders were already skilled enough to enroll in the Yale School of Architecture, or their parents had helped them – a lot.
I panicked. Should I have helped my kids?
It was hardly the only time I doubted my decision to let our children do things on their own. With rumblings of parents who later had hired tutors to get their kids through algebra and geometry and the ACT, sometimes I succumbed to the pressure and imagined a derelict future for our kids if they didn't receive the appropriate tutelage. Other times, I felt like a bad parent when I didn't do anything to help.
The perils of perfection
But it seemed that as a group, we were so busy helping our kids succeed, we were afraid to let them fail. According to Hara Estroff Marano in her 2008 book A Nation of Wimps, "Messing up … is wildly out of style these days. Although error and experimentation are the true mothers of success, parents are taking pains to remove failure from the equation. They are vigilant about positioning their children for success, which is now deemed to run on the straight-and-narrow path of academic achievement, from the earliest age, without what seems like dilatory downtime."
Is it true? Have parents turned into snowplows, ready to remove any barrier that stands in the way, afraid to let their children fail?
It seems so, say Barb McDowell and Norma Macklin, retired elementary school teachers who taught in Macomb County for over 40 years. They started to notice a change in parents in the 1990s.
"It's scarier for parents today," says McDowell, who admits well-intentioned parents want their children to be able to stack up in a global economy. The pressure starts early.
"Kindergarten is no longer for socialization. Kindergartners are expected to learn how to read and do simple math," Macklin says. As children get older, the competition intensifies. "Many parents feel, 'My kid needs to be the best. If my child has a problem, we have to fix this.' With the Internet and email, parents sometimes ask about an assignment before there is time to grade it."
Power School and Zangle
Online tools that let parents check their children's grades and homework assignments such as Power School and Zangle – which Marano believes feed into parental obsessiveness over grades – have their positives, Macklin says, but can take ownership away from the child.
"Kids may think, 'If there is some way Mom or Dad will find out about the homework assignment, then I'll sit back and wait to hear about it before I do anything on my own.' At what point does the child finally say, 'All the positives and negatives are on me, and I can do it on my own'?"
Claudia Walter, a licensed social worker from Novi with two children, says Zangle created a lot conflict at home. "In the beginning, I'd be going crazy. One day I'd see an 'A,' the next day an 'E.'" Her kids convinced her that an "E" can show up if the teacher adds an assignment but not the grade; they also thought Walter was "creeping" on them when they were in school. "I had to back off. It wasn't helping."
Walter and her husband finally put the responsibility back on their kids. "We said, 'This is your tool. We won't go on it unless you give us a reason to.' I might have checked if a whole week went by and I didn't see any homework, but it is way too subjective of a tool to look at every day."