Why I Will Let My Children Fail
When I was in university, one of the requirements for my degree was a political philosophy course. It was not the best class I ever took, although the professor tried really hard. As the old adage goes: It wasn't him, it was me. I knew I wasn't alone in my struggles with the material. In fact, the class had a battle-weary mentality about it. We would commiserate about the volume of reading and reassure each other that we would make it through together.
Each term the major assignment was a 20-page paper on a predetermined topic. All 45 of us had to write a paper on the exact same topic, which probably isn't what I would do if I were the one that had to mark them, but I wasn't. I did okay on the first paper -- a solid B-minus -- but I felt I could have done much better. I knew of one fellow classmate who had received a higher grade, and I was complaining to a mutual friend of ours about it. I didn't think she was that much smarter than me, you know? Then this happened:
"Well Erin, you know what she did, don't you?"
"Uh...no. What are you talking about?"
"She had her Mom help her with it."
"Isn't her Mom in Hawaii on vacation?"
"Yes! She faxed it to her parents' hotel so that her Mom could review it. The prof was her mom's thesis advisor." (I should note that this was back in the day before the internet allowed file sharing with ease.)
Now I'm pretty sure that if I ever tried to do that my Mom would be confused and throw it in the garbage (or recycling, where facilities exist), but honestly, the idea that either of my parents should review my university papers never even crossed my mind. From what I understand, students today don't have quite the same reservations, and a lot of parents are much more hands on than mine ever were. Forget reviewing, these parents have no problem with writing the darn thing in the first place.
In her recent article in The Atlantic, "Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail", Jessica Lahey talks about how so much of the much-bemoaned "entitlement" of the younger generations these days can be traced back to parents who didn't let their child make his or her own mistakes in school. Time and time again these parents would race to their kid's rescue, denying them the opportunity to learn about the magical concept of "consequences."
Credit: Failed Book Report via Shutterstock.
To be clear: I don't want my kids to fail. I don't know a parent who does. But if they neglect to study for an exam or have to cram to complete a paper, I am not going to swoop in and save them. At some point they need to be responsible for their own success, and that also means being responsible for their failures.
Tied to this is teaching them that getting a failing grade does not mean that they are themselves "a failure." There is a difference, although I've realized that not many people know that. I'm pretty sure it's why our society sees failing as something to be avoided at all costs, not as a valuable learning experience. I don't doubt that a lot of the motivation behind parents doing schoolwork for their children is because they think that if their child fails an exam, they will have failed as a parent. I would say that the opposite is true. If you intentionally inhibit your child from becoming confident in their own abilities, then to me that is failing as a parent.
My kids are just in preschool right now, but already they understand the concept of taking pride in their own work. The first time a child colors in the lines, or completes a building block project on his own, and receives praise for a job well done... well, that's not a feeling I ever want to take away from them. It builds confidence and resilience, traits that are essential if they are going to emerge from our home as well-adjusted adults.
I'll admit that I was a pretty independent child and young adult. I think it was a combination of nature and nurture, but I know that when I was in high school or at university, the idea that my parents would do any work for me was embarrassing. It would have meant that I lacked the skills to do it on my own, and that was horrifying to me. We felt bad for the people whose parents would interfere on their behalf ...except when it worked or they got the best grade in the class as a result; that just made us angry.
I will help my kids with their homework, but I won't do it for them. I will nag them about whether they've studied for the test or have started work on a project. I might even run to the store late at night if they've underestimated the materials they need to complete that project. But if they wake up one morning and say, "Mom I didn't study as much for that test as I should have. Can you write me a note so I can be sick today and write it later?" The answer will be no. They'll be mad at me, but in time I think they'll understand.
If I've really done my job right, they won't even think of asking in the first place.