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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Sink or swim
Sometimes, parents are forced to hand responsibility over to their kids – a position Birmingham mom Kristin MacKay found herself in. A self-confessed control freak, she had micromanaged her son's homework all the way through sixth grade.
Though her son was extremely bright, he was easily distracted and had struggled with organization in school. A teacher friend suggested he might do well in a different environment, one that catered to like-minded children. After checking out a school close to her home, Kristen agreed to enroll him – even though she was told by school staff she had to "let go."
"They said, 'That's our philosophy here. They're going sink or they're going swim, but they're going do it on their own.'" To her surprise, her son took responsibility for his own work and thrived in the new school with little oversight by his mom. He later told her, "Mom, I found my place."
It's an outcome that wouldn't surprise Royal Oak writer and mother Cindy La Ferle. Before her son graduated from high school in 2004, "We did a lot of the proverbial 'throw a kid in the pool and let him learn how to swim' stuff," says La Ferle, who is also a product of the sink-or-swim approach. "We told our son, 'You can go out and try new things, but if it doesn't work out, you are the one who succeeded or the one who failed.'"
But what happens when a kid sinks?
Walter, the social worker, says, "We learn to succeed as human beings by failing. If you've never failed because someone's buffered your fall, then the essential problem-solving skill you need for academics, jobs and relationships isn't being developed. We learn lessons through mistakes and continue to do so as adults."
So why are we so afraid to let our kids fail? Walter says it's because our self-esteem comes from our kids doing well – "from Johnny going to Harvard."
La Ferle agrees. "We take personally the things that happen to our kids, and if our kids succeed, we are successful parents. If they fail, it's a bad reflection on us. If we can get over that, then that's good. Sometimes we need to step back and not use our kids as trophies."
From his perch as a counselor at Birmingham Seaholm High School, Walt Romano has a bird's eye view on the pressure to get into the "right" college.
"Today, you can't fail!" he says. "Parents are making sure their kids have every opportunity to get into college. Kids have to 'be' something, whether it's captain of a sports team or community service volunteer or to have that great ACT score and GPA."
Romano says that some parents contact colleges directly to notify them of their child's "big accomplishment," but the schools don't want to hear from the counselors or parents. "It's way more important for the kid to contact the school, because it says something about them."
Parents also seem to think certain schools will set their kids up for success while others will set them up for failure.
"But they really don't. I have students who will say, 'I have to get into U of M' – and then I find out they want to be a teacher. Well, there are so many good schools of education in Michigan – Central, Western, MSU – you don't have to go to U of M to be a teacher. When you get out, what really counts is who you are as a teacher and a person, not what school is on your diploma."
When Romano speaks with students one-on-one about their strengths and weaknesses, they seem relieved. "We ask them: 'Where do you want to go, what have you done in the past that you've been good at, and let's see how you can turn that into a nice career for yourself. It isn't all about your grades or ACT scores.' That really opens up a lot of eyes."
Kids get their cues from their parents, Romano continues, and if parents can calm down and relax, it will help the kids. "If a kid is struggling, have the appropriate conversation, but don't freak out. If kids have a good solid foundation, they know they will be OK."
Meet 11 famous folks who changed the face of pop culture, science and more in our photo gallery. Just click on any of the photos below to begin.