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.
The helicoptering doesn’t end when kids graduate from high school. “Parents are dramatically more involved in college students’ lives today than in decades past—and you’d be hard-pressed to find a college administrator who sees that as a good thing,” says Ponneh Varho, managing partner of the D.C. office of executive search firm Isaacson, Miller, where she specializes in placing high-level administrators at Ivy League and elite liberal arts colleges. As someone who works closely with deans of student affairs, Varho has a front-row seat to many of the most pressing issues on college campuses.
“There’s a swath of students who are high-achieving but broken on the inside,” she says. “Their sense of self is damaged and they’re saddled with ‘imposter syndrome’—the sense that they don’t really deserve to be at these schools. Kids are calling and texting their parents all the time, and parents have deans on speed dial. Kids are not being allowed to stumble and recover. Counseling services are in high demand, and suicide rates are alarming.”
Varho recalls the president of one elite college noting that incoming students are increasingly grappling with feelings of isolation combined with pressure to achieve. (In a 2018 study by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, “pressure to excel” was listed as a significant threat to adolescents’ wellness and ability to adjust—along with poverty, trauma and racism.)
“If you’re a college that attracts kids at the top of their class, they’re not all going to be at the top of their class once they get to college—90 percent of kids will no longer be in the top 10 percent of their class,” says Varho, who lives in Falls Church and has two kids of her own. “They are overwhelmed and lacking a strong sense of independence and agency, which is what helps them cultivate the tools to handle the next chapter of life.” And they are leaning on their parents for support.
“What’s at the core of all this,” she says empathetically, “is an intense love, a wanting to do what’s best for our kids. Kids now have stronger relationships with their parents than seemingly ever before. So, on the one hand, we’re cultivating these strong relationships, but on the other hand, there’s an undeniable spike in mental health problems.”
In many ways, that impulse to step in has become culturally ingrained. “It’s hard in this area to opt out because you feel like you’re swimming upstream,” Varho says. “You have to fight your own parental insecurities. You don’t want to be seen as a neglectful parent who’s not setting their child up for success, who’s not attending every PTA meeting or pushing harder to get their kid into advanced classes.”
One thing you can do to help mentally prep your kids for college (and adulthood), says Jessica Lahey, author of the best-selling book The Gift of Failure, is to make sure the college application isn’t the first time they are confronted with official, consequential paperwork.
“It’s important for kids to learn how to fill out forms and meet application deadlines well before college. School, camp, driver’s license, medical and job application forms are great places to practice,” she says.
“Supporting your teen’s autonomy does not mean you abandon them to their own devices; it means that you step back and wait until they need help before jumping in. When they do need help, guide them toward finding the answers themselves (‘Well, where might you look up your doctor’s address and phone number?’) before handing them over. Calendar alarms, set sequentially one month, two weeks, and one week before applications are due, can also keep them on track for long-term planning.”