Yes, you can let kids fail: How to avoid overparenting

A few scrapes builds character

Girls after soccer loss
(Image credit: (Thinkstock))

Two years ago Kristina Sauerwein, a mom of two in St. Louis, Mo., attended a family fun night at the new school her seven-year-old daughter Zoe attended.

One of the games, which involved putting a golf ball into a hole, gave kids the chance to win a stuffed snake. Zoe tried — and failed — to get the ball into the hole. Zoe's little brother, her friends, younger kids — they all hit the ball and won a stuffed snake. Meanwhile, Zoe kept trying, with the encouragement of her mom and dad, but missed the hole every time. As the winners stood around her, shaking their snakes like trophies, Zoe gave it one last shot. It was her 11th attempt. She missed.

That's when Zoe had what her mother can only describe as "a meltdown."

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"I can't tell you how hard it was to sit there and watch her cry," says Sauerwein, 42. "I'm usually a softy about these things, but somehow I knew I had to let her experience the disappointment and frustration for herself. It was awful. I felt sick to my stomach." She still feels bad about it, she says. "I felt like I watched her heart harden a little that day."

Why it's so hard to let kids stumble

Like Sauerwein, many mothers would've had a difficult time watching their child "fail." As a parent, how do you stand idly by as your child falters, when all you want to do is set them up for success? How (when, where?) do you draw the line? And when does loving attentiveness become hovering overprotectiveness?

The day of the golf-ball fiasco, Sauerwein looked on as other parents stepped in to help their children make the shot. She could have intervened too. She could have even bought a stuffed snake for her daughter as a "Nice try!" consolation prize. But she didn't do either of these things. Instead, she sat on her hands and let her daughter learn for herself that sometimes you fail no matter how hard you try. She says her daughter learned a valuable lesson in resilience that day. "She moped for the weekend, but then she got over it and went on with things," she recalls.

These days, Sauerwein's daughter is tougher-skinned. "Zoe's been in situations where she's won a trophy for soccer when she knows herself she's no good at soccer. She's not fooled," says Sauerwein, citing the common practice of giving everyone a trophy or award, so no child has hurt feelings. "I think in a lot of cases losing is the best thing that can happen to you as a kid."

A growing number of experts agree that by stepping in too often we can actually set kids back.

"Children need love and attention, yes. But at the same time they have to learn to problem-solve and that there are consequences to their actions," says retired teacher Barbara Bushey, a 37-year classroom veteran turned parenting coach based in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. "They have to be allowed to fail sometimes, and parents who try to prevent that aren't allowing their child to learn important lessons they'll need as adults."

Our precious kids, our overprotective selves

In recent years there's been a much-discussed trend of overparenting, replete with a new vocabulary to describe said habits, e.g., "helicopter" parents, who hover and swoop down to intervene at the first sign of trouble, and "lawnmower" parents, who seek to smooth over every possible situation that could cause their child stress or discomfort.

A recent study by the Queensland University of Technology described the swoop-in-and-save phenomenon as parents' "loving but misguided attempt to improve their child's current and future personal and academic success."

In the study, researchers surveyed more than 100 school counselors and child psychologists in Australia and asked them to answer questions about the prevalence of overparenting. Over 90 percent said they'd seen at least some instances of the phenomenon, citing examples like parents carrying children who were old enough to walk on their own, cutting food for students well into elementary school, agitating the school for higher grades than the student had earned, and micromanaging their kids' academic work well into college.

According to numerous sources from Dr. Spock to Dr. Susan Newman, one of the standard Western notions of good parenting has been "high responsiveness" (responding to your child's needs) coupled with "high demandingness" (expecting things of your child, such as good grades or doing their chores.)

But somewhere along the line, some parents began to believe that more was better: More praise. More help with homework. "I've been seeing this clinically for many years," says Judith Locke, the lead researcher of the Australian study and a clinical psychologist. "These parents are putting extreme efforts into giving their child what they see as the best childhood. But it appears some of those efforts might inadvertently go too far."

Why a little failure is good for kids

There's an old Chinese saying, "Failure is the mother of success." You don't have to look far in our culture to find celebrated examples of this very notion: Einstein is rumored to have flunked math for years; Steve Jobs was fired from the company he started, only to return a few years later and take Apple to new heights; Walt Disney himself was fired early in his career by a newspaper editor who told him that he "had no imagination and no good ideas."

Many educators and parent professionals say failure — even the opportunity for failure — is a necessary ingredient for raising autonomous, resilient young adults.

"Resilience is actually built through children coping with occasional bumps, not by only experiencing perfectly smooth rides as they travel through childhood," says Locke.

My own 13-year-old son, devastated that he didn't test into the gifted and talented program in elementary school, despite having better grades than others who'd made the cut, countered this setback by getting perfect grades ever since. His "I'll show them" attitude has paid off: He was recently accepted into the highly selective college prep academy at the local high school, which only accepts the top five percent of students from the entire 81,000-student district.

Not letting kids fail sets them up for an ugly time out in the real world. In "How to Land Your Kid in Therapy," a story about overparenting that writer and therapist Lori Gottlieb published in the Atlantic, she describes how some newly enrolled college freshmen come to be known as "teacups" by the faculty, who see them as so overprotected and emotionally fragile they fall apart at the first less-than-stellar grade.

"What you don't do is go and argue a grade with a teacher or professor," says Bushey, adding that her daughter teaches at the University of Michigan in the nursing program, and sees parents do this routinely.

"Unfortunately for the child, they're not learning any sense of responsibility. They're not learning about consequences or having to face them. They're not learning how to problem solve — all things they'll need to grow into functioning adults — because their parents won't let them," she says.

"How many times do you and your boss have a disagreement, and you have to articulate and negotiate through the situation," she says. "Is your mother going to do it for you?"

How to let kids fall (without trying to pick them up)

Like Sauerwein above, letting our kids fail in front of our eyes can be horrifically difficult. But, says Bushey, you need to be able to step back and identify the learning opportunity.

"Obviously you step in when there's a safety threat," she explains. But when faced with a possible failure in a school or extracurricular setting, ask yourself: "Is this going to result in their learning resilience? Learning how to stand up for themselves or problem-solve? Then yes, that's a good time to stand back and let them fail," says Bushey. "Or not fail. Let them find out if they can do something by themselves."

Kate Taylor, a 48-year-old mom of 12-year-old Lily in Milwaukie, Ore., admits that it took her a while to learn this lesson. "I am the quintessential helicopter parent," she says. But as Lily got older, she noticed her daughter was lacking "scrappiness," she says. "She'd whine and quit things midstream when they got hard, or she lost interest. And up until last summer, I let her."

This summer Lily and a close friend had arranged to spend a week at a Rock & Roll camp for girls, a day program designed to teach girls music while boosting their self-esteem. "Since Lily loves to play the guitar, but is on the shy side, I thought it would be a perfect place for her to blossom," says Taylor. The girls form bands, write songs, and at the end of the week, perform in front of a group of 400 parents and friends. Lily was game, but was adamant that she wouldn't sing. "I can't sing in front of people," she insisted repeatedly. "I play music but I don't sing."

The first challenge came when Lily's friend decided she didn't like the camp after the first day and her mother let her opt out. Now Lily was stuck in a band of girls she didn't know and who were already friends, and who were already suggesting that she play guitar and sing.

"I was tempted to call the friend's mother and try to pressure her to honor her commitment and return to the camp," recalls Taylor. "I was tempted to let Lily opt out. Painful as it was, I did neither." "Something held me back. I was thinking, 'You've got to be a little tougher than this, kid.'"

The day of the big performance, Taylor was more nervous than her daughter, with no idea how Lily would handle the stress or expectations.

"And then there she was, standing up there as the lead singer and guitar player, singing a song that had her father and I in tears. She looked so confident and strong standing up there. I will never forget it," says Taylor. "It truly blew me away."

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