Raising Successful Children Means Letting Them Fail

Several fellow educators have been joking that the New York Times has become the go-to place for expert parenting advice.  It’s really interesting that the top therapists/psychologists are writing so often for the Times–apparently they get more views and go more viral than any other type of article they publish.

Regardless, one of my favorite author/psychologists, Madeline Levine, penned this article recently.  There’s nothing particularly “new” in this article, but it serves as an excellent reminder to all of us about resisting the temptation to overparent, overprotect, and overpraise.

“If you can’t stand to see your child unhappy, you are in the wrong business…To rush in too quickly, to shield them, to deprive them of those challenges is to deprive them of the tools they will need to handle the inevitable, difficult, challenging and sometimes devastating demands of life.”

Enjoy and be inspired!

The Price of Privilege

I just reread the book, The Price of Privilege.  It focuses on America’s newest high risk group: affluent kids.  “Affluent” in most of these studies means household incomes of $120,000 or more, but can be as low as $75,000 when they include advertising demographics.  (I would argue that the influences in the book have much more to do with our current affluent culture, than the income of the parents.) Preteens and teens from affluent homes are much more likely to struggle with depression, anxiety disorders, cutting and self-hurt, and drug and alcohol abuse due to low frustration tolerance, perfectionism, lack of internal development, and low self-efficacy.  Dr. Levine argues that money (or the many choices and items available to us in our affluent society) increases the number of difficult decisions parents will have to make.  We all know we have so much to be thankful for, but our “plenty” can be a double-edged sword.  The book will humble all of us, whether we feel wealthy or not, that we are buying our kids too much, eating dinner together too little, and living lives too crazy to be emotionally available to each other, and remind us exactly what we should be thankful for!

Hurting our Kids with Praise

For me, one of the scariest elements of teaching and parenting is what we do unintentionally; messages we are sending that we don’t realize we are sending, techniques we think are beneficial that backfire. Fortunately, kids are tremendously resilient and are going to be fine, more or less, if they know we love them and they have basic boundaries. However, in the interest of always learning and improving, one counterintuitive parenting issue is praise. There is a lot of research and there are a number of books explaining that research (Mindsets, Too Much of a Good Thing, NurtureShock) and it comes up regularly in family therapy all over the nation. Even our own Dr. Montessori said we should observe the facts to our children rather than pass judgement (“Wow, your picture is blue” instead of “Wow, your picture is beautiful”). Watch this 8 minute video about the effects of praising our kids, to get an idea of what researchers see. It’s an interesting glimpse of how our well-intentioned praise can hurt their performance, their self confidence, and even be linked to anxiety and depression.

The benefits of letting our children fail…

The New York Times ran an article last week called, “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?” and it was the most emailed article for several days.  The author was looking at what character traits in children translate to the most successful, meaningful lives.  Self control, zest, grit, curiosity, optimism, social intelligence, gratitude are among the most important traits to be fostering in our children.  Such traits are much more important to their futures than GPA’s or standardized testing.  How do you help your children develop such traits?  One of the most important things you can do is let them fail.  Don’t protect them and save them from the many little consequences of their actions.  Don’t argue with their teachers for deadline extensions.  Don’t drive their lunch or homework up to them when they forget it.  Don’t get them in on the birthday party they weren’t invited to. Resilience, empathy, and responsibility are all going to be developed through disappointment and failure, the same way muscles are developed through heavy resistance.  So we have to let them work through those situations.  Some empathy from you? Great.  Fixing the situation? It will hurt your child in the long run.

What does college preparatory mean?

Pat Bassett, the president of NAIS, recently served on a panel to facilitate collaboration between college preparatoy schools and and distinguished universities.  He writes about his major takeaways in his blog, which you can read here.  Recommended reading for anyone with college on the mind.  My takeaways. 1) Strong character, and social and thinking skills (communication, emotionally resiliency, collaboration) are the most important tools to bring to college. (Mr. Bassett doesn’t elaborate on this, but it’s everywhere lately.)  2) Depression, anxiety, binge drinking etc. continue to be at epidemic levels in college, but we do not see any sort of widespread constructive response among parents/educators.  3) University admissions departments are evolving with #1 above and gradually moving away from our cultural dependency on standardized testing.

What’s interesting to me, is that these 3 points are completely intertwined and at the heart of preparing a child for college.  The standardized tests and overall college admission craze are putting an incredible pressure on 50% of the kids to study and score like 1% of the kids.  Without the tools or time to meet the perceived demands, they are cheating and self-medicating (alcohol, ritalin, etc.) and running themselves raw.  Of course, all the time and energy put into looking perfect on paper is time and energy sucked away from character, creativity, resiliency, and social skills.

If we begin shifting the focus from quantitative summaries of our children to qualitative reflections, won’t much of the craziness subside?  If we think through the skills they truly need for college (not college admissions), won’t we want to pressure them to do their own laundry over getting straight A’s; help them develop the strength of character to go against the grain, (maybe say no thanks to the kegger) rather than helping them look like every other kid; and argue with them about NPR rather than homework?  Shouldn’t we find a college that fits them, rather than fitting them to a particular college?

Social conflicts

We had an interesting morning, listening to Dr. Tim Jordan discuss the social lives of children.  The biggest take-away for most of us, was probably the simple reminder that growing up and learning about relationships is hard; it was for us when we were kids and it’s hard for our kids now.  There is no way around it.  If we don’t go through it, we don’t get good at relationships. 
As I reflect on the talk, it strikes me that relationships are still hard. Whether I’m struggling through an issue with my husband, muddling through a misunderstanding with my extended family, or nursing feelings hurt by a friend or coworker, my conflicts look very similar to our children’s.  The primary differences are a little bit of tact and a lot more perspective.  When avoided, conflicts breed annoyance at best, and bitterness at worst.  When resolved, the conflict brings deeper understanding, intimacy, and trust with the resolution.  
I put all of my notes on our website for those of you who couldn’t make it.