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.

Illustration by Cathy Gendron

“Total MOM Fail!” exclaimed a recent Facebook post by a mom of two boys. Her 9-year-old son, she explained, needed postcards from people who live out of state, for a homework project. “If you can, mail me one today or tomorrow,” she wrote. “Please let me know and I will message you the info.”

At what point had this become her failure? Wasn’t it her kid’s job to keep track of his assignments and to do the actual legwork?

In a word, yes, says William Stixrud, a clinical neuropsychologist who has worked with area families for 35 years. “One of the basic formulas of child-rearing is not to do for your kids what they can do for themselves. It weakens them and makes them more dependent on us. It reduces their ability to become resilient. The way to develop resilience is to experience stress and deal with it.”

And yet so many of us are guilty of the opposite. We pack our kids’ lunches when they’re running late, and when they forget those lunches (or math homework, or musical instruments or umbrellas), we run those items up to school, lest they experience the pangs of hunger, a bad grade or wet clothes.

Incidents like these are low-stakes, but they are training grounds for self-sufficiency, Stixrud says.

A kid who packs his own lunch has control over what he eats and pride in his independence. And it only takes one incident of being benched for a young soccer player to remember her mandatory shin guards the next time around.

In his book, The Self-Driven Child, which he co-authored with Ned Johnson, Stixrud urges parents to be a “non-anxious presence” for their children—a guide who is there to help when asked, but doesn’t hover, interfere or push a personal agenda. “

But show me a non-anxious parent in McLean, Arlington or Falls Church,” he jokes, good-naturedly. “There’s all this fear that if I don’t push my kids constantly, other kids will get ahead of them. This thinking is delusional. So many parents think it’s worth it for kids to be stressed or anxious or tired if they eventually get into a really elite college—but nope. If kids develop an anxiety disorder, it changes their brain, and that makes them more vulnerable to chronic anxiety or repeated bouts of depression.”

Categories: Parents & Kids
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