Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Let Your Children Fail


When he was younger, my son found a chrysalis in the backyard.  He took it inside and put it in a jelly jar where he observed it each evening for months.  Imagine his excitement the day the butterfly started hatching.  He spent many hours watching the brave butterfly trying to break free.  He worried that the butterfly would not make it and finally kindly helped him by breaking the chrysalis and letting the butterfly free.  The butterfly promptly fell to the bottom of the terrarium where he gasped a bit and went to the garden in the sky.  It turns out that the battle to escape the chrysalis is critical to the butterfly’s survival.  Without the fight, the butterfly does not develop the strength to pump liquid in its wings and live independently.

It is very hard to be a good parent these days—harder than a generation or two ago--at least so concludes Dr. Robert Evans, a clinical and organizational psychologist, who consults for independent schools across the nation.  Evans, who I just heard at the North Carolina Association of Independent Schools (NCAIS) conference, posits that parenting is easier when choices are few and the rate of change is slow.  Of course we now live in a world where choices are copious and change is lightning fast.  Such an environment breeds anxiety about whether we are parenting well and what our children need.

Further, we live in a world where opportunity is ubiquitous.  In this meritocracy (which is a good thing) any child with the right grades and standardized test scores can get into Harvard.  However, many students with the right grades and standardized test scores will be rejected by Harvard.  As a result, predictability is down.  Uncertainty leads to anxiety. And according to Evans, anxiety is contagious.  One anxious parent leads to another and to another until there is an epidemic of anxious parents. 

So it is understandable (even rational) that parents are anxious and less certain of their parenting today—many choices, fast changes, great opportunity, little certainty and a zeitgeist of anxiety. 

In this age, we parents do what parents have always done.  We strive to do what is best for our children.  However, we sometimes inadvertently let our good intentions hurt our children.  Because the world seems so uncertain, we try to make it predictable for our children by removing obstacles from their path.   Yet, the understandable instinct to step in and help your child navigate the shoals of life may end up leaving them stranded on the rocks.  As Evans commented, some parents work too hard preparing the path for their child rather than preparing their child for the path. 

So what is a parent to do?  Here are four ideas. 

One Head of School of a highly regarded independent school starts Parent Night with this audacious statement: “The faculty and I hope that during the course of the year each of your children fail.”  “We will not try to have them fail,” he continues.  “But we hope they will each have that opportunity, and we hope that you as parents will give them the gift of allowing them to deal with and remedy the failure."  

That Head of School is asking parents to realize that most children are amazingly resilient, and we should trust their resilience.  It is okay if your child fails sometimes, academically or socially.  By letting them pick themselves up and move forward you are sending them an empowering message—we understand your strength and respect your skills.  We trust you can do this independently and will support you as you do the work.  The risk, then, is not in the failure but in either not allowing your child to fail or swooping in to fix the failure before allowing your child to do so. 

Study after study indicates that the greatest predictor of success, professional and personal, is perseverance.  And perseverance, like any other quality, must be practiced.  It must be allowed to develop.  Wendy Mogel makes this point in her two best sellers, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee and The Blessing of a B-(The former aimed at younger children, the later for adolescents.)  Mogel is echoing the famous aphorism—if at first you do not succeed, try, try again.  In order to try, try again our children must struggle at a task at least twice.  
Parents should also realize that success is much wider and broader than going to the most prestigious colleges.  Studies show those students who went to the most prestigious colleges did not out-earn or have a happier life than those who went to less prestigious schools.  (See the Atlantic article, Who Needs Harvard?)   By pushing our children too hard, we are doing our children a great disservice. The trailer for a soon to be released movie, Race to Nowhere, makes this point very well.

Related to the above, parents should encourage their children to enjoy today.  As Harry Chapin sang, “It’s got to be the going, not the getting there that’s good.”  We need to see the blessings in our everyday life rather than constantly aiming for tomorrow. 

Finally, let your child make real contributions to the family and to the greater community.  Self-reliance derives from understanding one’s own value.  Making authentic contributions allows a child to understand their abilities and their potential.  Insist your child participates in chores and makes life better for others.  (The best discussion I have seen of this point is in How to Raise Self-Reliant Children in a Self-Indulgent Age.

My son stepped in when he should not have to rescue his butterfly.  Let’s work together to ensure that all the butterflies at Duke School are strong enough to take flight when they leave based on the power of their own wings.  It is the greatest gift we can give them.