I went through an interesting experience a couple of years ago where I learned to let our kids struggle. My child came home in a panic telling me that they needed to finish a project for science that night, because it was due the next day. Now, this was the first time I had heard about it. As my children have gotten older they have become more and more responsible for keeping track of their assignments and homework. My child had just forgotten to tell me.
Part of me wanted to rush out, get the materials and stay up all night “helping” them. Which really meant me doing most of the work while they got the sleep they needed. But guess what? I did not do that. I realized that I was promoting a bad habit that they needed that lesson to break, before it got out of hand. What would I be teaching them if I came to the rescue and never let our kids struggle?
I got them the materials and left them to it, in spite of their begging. I patiently explained that they had made a mistake and had to own up to it and do all they could to make up for it. It was not exactly a punishment, I just wanted them to understand why they had to stay organized and involved in their own progress. They ended up getting a C for their rushed project. The next one they started early and landed an A.
The Importance Of Failure
A study done by Queensland University found that over-parenting in an attempt to keep kids from failing has an opposite effect. Instead of helping them in future success, it keeps them from learning personal responsibility and problem solving skills.
Psychological Science published research that also showed that success can come from failure. It may push us to try harder next time, find new avenues to success and even seek different, more healthy rewards. Hear Jim Harshaw’s view about the importance of failure and struggle in the video below.
We can see the importance of failure in our own lives. Often we set ourselves goals that we do not manage to meet. Maybe we resolve to get a certain raise by the end of the year and have a conversation with our boss that does not go so well. They say that we are doing great work but they can’t justify any changes in salary due to the current budget.
If we do not know how to handle failure and use it to drive us towards better things we might react angrily, storm out with middle fingers in the air, quit on the spot. But a well adjusted person who has been allowed to learn from failure will continue to negotiate. They will go and apply for a new position elsewhere, grow.
That is not a naturally occurring reaction, it is one that we learn through tough lessons in life. It is one that our children must learn themselves.
Stepping Back To Let Our Kids Struggle So Your Child Can Succeed
It goes against our instincts as parents, but our kids have to hurt sometimes. They have to get embarrassed, feel like losers, get the occasional thump to their ego. You can be there to support them through it, make them feel better, yet the lesson has to be learned.
Much of this comes down to finding the right balance between supporting them and coddling them. It is not always an easy line to distinguish, especially if your kids are still young enough that they are only starting to gain their independence. You also do not want to throw them into the deep end out of nowhere and watch them flounder, that could be cruel.
Age can help give us some guidelines for how far to step back and let our kids struggle. For instance, a child around four years old may be wanting to do things themselves. They may make a mess and cause some extra work for you, but it is no worse than if you were to do it for them and it gives them a chance to learn it on their own. However, you would not want to let them go to the store of their own. That is an easy boundary for a younger child.
For a 12-year-old you might allow them to go to the nearby park alone with friends. But you expect them to come back before it is dark and not doing so could lead to consequences.
A 16-year-old can get their license and start a job to pay the insurance and monthly payment on a car but they have to maintain those payments or lose it, you will not bail them out.
Each of these milestones give your child a chance to stretch their wings, make their own decisions and learn responsibility. You can allow it and support them through the process, including giving advice and commiserating when something goes wrong. But barring major life problems that require intensive intervention, you should let them fail or succeed without you swooping in to make things right.
Maybe your 4-year-old will spill the milk making their own bowl of serial. Perhaps your 12-year-old will come home a half hour late and get into trouble for missing their curfew. Your 16-year-old could default on a payment and have to pay a fee out of their paycheck to catch up. All of these are lessons they will remember and learn from. That take away will be that when they make a mistake it is up to them to fix it, not up to you. That will be valuable for them as they grow into adults.
Though it hurts to watch you will be giving them the skills and experience they need to make it next time. You will also be giving them room to learn how to cope with rejection and mistakes. So take a deep breath, step back and let them fall. Let our kids struggle! You know you will always be there to dust them off…they just have to stand back up on their own.
Tyler Jacobson is a husband, father, freelance writer with experience with organizations that help troubled teens and parents. His areas of focus include: parenting, social media, addiction, mental illness, and issues facing teenagers today. Follow Tyler on: Twitter | LinkedIn