Let them fail, you say? The experts tell us that failure is good for kids.
Says who? Are any of these researchers actual parents? Could there really ever be such a thing as a parenting expert? And could we get any more counterintuitive than intentionally letting kids fail?
For me, part of the allure in deciding to become a mom is that I would be adored by someone, from day one. I would give birth and transform into this picturesque, prize-winning, nurturing body that instinctively wouldn’t—couldn’t—allow her offspring to fall flat on their darling faces.
Caring for my kids is second nature. Fly from the nest on your own time, kiddo. No rush! Even though sometimes I worry that I’m not teaching them anything, but to have a fear of leaving my side. This is also likely why my kids can’t do certain things like tie their shoes at an early age, or do laundry at 16—because I simply forgot to stop babying them. It didn’t even dawn on me to stop. My reflexes are stuck on a loop of “mother knows best,” and it’s kind of a hot mess now that I think of my oldest four kiddos leaving this over-stuffed nest soon.
There are so many ways to let them fail, but I’m quickly learning that broken bones is the easy part. It’s what separates an accident from an intentional lesson. And of course there’s the damage you maybe can’t see – like their development. Here’s a couple of examples.
The first is a simple one with clearcut learning results – failure done right: Last week, Pascal, my new skateboarding aficionado, announced she was ready to drop into the bowl by herself without my assist. In a rare personal moment of “letting go,” I watched her drop in with a rush self-confidence. She sailed through the air, and promptly lost her board. She landed first on her hip, and then on her face. Before I could catch my breath, she was up on her feet instantly—shocked and hopping up and down and limping while holding back tears. She looked around the park, at all the older skater guys to make sure none of them saw her.
Then she looked at me, completely pissed, and said, “Why did you let me do that?”
And somehow I found the right answer, “Because skateboarding can be as shitty as math. You only get better by getting it wrong.”
HA! Wise words, but I’m sure this one hurt me more than it hurt her. I know this is true, because I’m still cringing about it, while she’s dropped back into that same bowl at least 15 times since.
But as hard as this was for me, it was actually one of the easier examples. You’d think I would have learned as much as Pascal.
Example Two: Jake, my 17-year-old. Somehow the idea of “letting him fail” translates in my mind into letting him down. That’s because his upbringing has been different from Pascal’s. He has experienced divorce twice, early childhood abandonment (His birth dad din’t raise him and Pippin is his second step-dad). Feel my guilt yet?
So with Jake, I tend to walk around with a safety net and a huge roll of emotional bubble wrap at the ready.
Whenever he goes through something even slightly difficult, I want to fly to his rescue—and I usually do (in a tutu and heels of course, just so it looks extra impressive).
While I understand this is probably rule #1 in the book of resilience, I have a hard time watching Jake, or any of my kids for that matter, struggle. It’s like throwing your babies in a pool and trusting they won’t drown. As a result, I’ve come to wonder if the real issue is in watching them fail, or the unbearable fear of that failure backfiring on them. What if a So-Called Life Lesson turns into trauma? What if that one time I was really needed, was the one time I wasn’t there, because I wanted them to fail? What if they blame me?
I struggle mightily with this concept of failure. For me and for them. It makes me feel like a screwup, like I skipped over entire chapters in that rule book. I feel unsupportive and cruel. As though most of the time, I have the answer or solution, and they don’t, yet here I am working hard just to refuse help.
I’ve always wanted a better way to help all of my kids, but I have yet to find one.
In fact, I’m terrible at it. This is especially hard when you are a parent in a blended family—it means you co-parent; some of your kids don’t stay with you all of the time. It’s not just Jake, it’s Phoenix, Milla and M.J. Are the other parents teaching failure? I have no way of knowing what any of it looks like, and it can be scary to think I might be the bad guy.
And yet I know that failing is a necessary skill. It is the only way we learn resilience – all of us. How to get back on a skateboard and face that fearful drop that completely owned you, or working harder to understand why you flunked your math test—or working harder to understand why you flunked the mom test. It’s when you really learn what it means to be human, and what imperfection feels like. Failure is not just for teaching life lessons to the kids, it’s also for the moms—when we don’t say the right things or laugh when we shouldn’t. Or just aren’t there when we should have been.
As hard as it is, I am trying little by little to let my kids fail. Sometimes I just quit doing things for them, cold turkey— like making beds, folding laundry, picking up dirty dishes, or keeping track of their library books. Things they have grown used to my doing. Mom things. I stop with no warning, knowing they’re not going to like it. I see it as basically pulling the plug to their life line, to see if they can breathe on their own. And for awhile, all I can do is watch them gasp for air. And when it doesn’t work out—and it usually doesn’t—I dive in and save them.
So in the end, letting them fail and not letting them fail feels like losing.
Like I’m not doing my mom job. It’s hard to stop caring, when you really, really do. So I cheat—which makes the lesson they are supposed to learn really confusing.
In any case, they need to begin to wrap their heads around the experience of “where did I go wrong and what do I do now?” So I keep staying in the game, because it is also a valuable lesson for me, as I learn to do the impossible: let them go.
So Called Mom
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