Why Can’t We Let Our Kids Fail?
It's not easy watching your child cope with a bad grade, a broken friendship or being cut from the team. But intervening can be worse.
*Pseudonyms used for privacy
Much of what drives us as parents, of course, is that protective instinct. It’s wanting our kids not to feel pain. But deep down, the compulsion to “save” them is also about us.
“We have this fear that we’re not being good enough parents,” says Josie Woods, director of student support at The Potomac School in McLean. “Am I giving my child every possible opportunity to be competitive in this world, whether that’s in sports, academics, the arts? When we allow our kids to fail, sometimes parents see that as a parental failure. So the anxiety we have about putting our kids at a disadvantage makes us want to swoop in.”
Lynn*, an Arlington mom of three, agrees. “I think every parent wants their child to find something to hang their hat on—something that gives them confidence,” she says, “especially when other parents are talking about their kids’ résumé and activities. It is hard for kids—and parents, too—to stop comparing themselves to each other.”
Studies indicate that kids today are experiencing higher rates of anxiety, depression and low self-esteem than previous generations. Some experts say parents are inadvertently feeding that beast.
Rachel Bailey, a parenting coach based in Vienna, is routinely tapped to lead parenting workshops at Arlington and Fairfax County schools. “I started out working with teens,” says Bailey, a former therapist and ADHD coach, “but I realized the greater need was to work with parents”—specifically, knowing when to dial it back and resist the temptation to intervene.
“When kids are really young, we have to solve their problems for them,” she says. “But at a certain point the hovering takes a toll on both kids and parents. No one really tells parents: Stop. Let them do it for themselves. That’s where I come in.”
The overreach is pervasive, Bailey says. She sees parents doing their kids’ chores because it’s easier than fighting with them, and meddling in their kids’ friendship dynamics. “You have to protect your 2-year-old from being hit by another kid on the playground, but by grade school or middle school they need to be managing their relationships by themselves.”
Why is it so hard for us to butt out? “The biggest piece of this is that we, as a generation of parents, don’t know how to handle discomfort,” Bailey observes. “Our way of coping with discomfort is to control things,” when the more productive approach is to teach kids how to problem solve.
“I like to start by having parents ask their kids, ‘What do you think you should say to your friend?’ ” she advises. “If they want to offer [their child] a suggestion, they can say, ‘I’ll tell you what I would do, but I’m not X years old and I haven’t been in your classroom. So how do you need to change it so that it will work for you?’ I want [parents] to give kids the tools rather than doing it for them.