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?”
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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We have 60 terabytes of family footage.
For the last ten years of our blended family life together, Pippin and I have been recording just about every single movement of every single member of our family. Why?
Because this life is worth capturing. Well, that’s the easy answer – the puffed-up proud mom answer. Because like anyone else, I love the obvious stuff like first steps and birthdays, Christmas and dance recitals. But the real meat of life is located in between those moments.
Such as Jake’s obsession with pulling out his siblings loose baby teeth. Any and all arguments. Emotional transitions from one parent’s house to the other. Getting sauced late Christmas Eve and sitting among hundreds of unwrapped presents. Recording our turtle dying from an overdose of anesthesia from the vet because the dog ate him.
Life is just so much less staged in these moments, and I feel more connected with the realness, with my kids and my family. These are not Pinterest worthy moments: the house is a mess and the dog is shaking off his smelly wet body everywhere and the cat is eating pizza off the table and the kids are hitting each other and I’m sitting in the center of it all in that moment of truth. You know the feeling? That moment where an inner voice says to you: At one point, this was exactly what you wanted. And better yet: Do you still want it?
These filmed moments of chaos help me say yes. And with some damn conviction.
I wish I could say filming was my idea, but I actually have Pippin to thank. He’s obsessed with recording everything about our family. He claims to “find human interaction fascinating”. He says our family is the test subject—Which he uses to hone his skills on. “I like to record things that are helpful to other people. I want to help people in parenting through real life instructional videos.” Full Disclosure:
At the beginning of our recorded life together, I was not that keen on being on camera all the time. When Pascal was born, a short year after we met, I was still camera shy—or at least still worried about how I looked on camera. So when Pippin assumed we’d record the birth, it was met with a resounding no. Not when I was the leading lady, huffing and puffing, uncomfortable on my back—with the potential to suddenly not be able to communicate that I wanted him to “turn that freaking thing off.”
But, three continuously recorded years later, things had changed. Leopold’s three camera cinematic set up was in the works before I even made it to the corner suite of the Nine’s Hotel. (Another post for another day, but suffice it to say, Leopold’s birth was less of a How-To guide on birthing a kid, than an intense TMI guide about the discomfort of childbirth. And when we posted that video on Youtube, it probably served as birth-control for someone.
These days I’m totally sold on being filmed at any time of the day, whatever I’m doing.
I now understand his reasons. I think he just thinks his family is the most amazing thing walking the Earth. He doesn’t see the mess of life; he sees family poetry. And if he blinks, it will all be aged out. Whether it’s dancing in the shower, the kids laughing, in the hospital with a broken arm, my yelling at a kid or even bawling my eyes out—it all has it’s logical place in our world together. I would even go so far as to say I get ticked off now when he’s not recording , especially during a critical family moment that we will never recapture.
This is all to give some context about why we film. It’s because to us, these moments matter. All of them. I’ve even thought about setting up a few cameras in the house, to be rolling at all times.
So then, does this make us a selfie family?
I want to say no, but all signs point to yes. And for the most part, everyone is on board, or at least tolerant. Jake is constantly criticizing us for overusing or “abusing” the cameras. When the camera turns on, Phoenix reduces his personality to resemble day old porridge. Milla dodges questions and MJ slaps her forehead. But on occasion, one of the unwilling participants gives us a gem—a small glimmer into who they are becoming. The rest of the footage is just about how they got there.
And one of these days, I will be able to sit down and press play. Almost like I get to enjoy my life twice. At least I will never be the mom who says, “I can’t remember.”
I won’t need to remember, it’s all right here.
So Called Mom
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