Parents must protect their child, but we must prepare them for life as well. I see too many parents stunting their child’s social, behavioral, emotional, academic, and athletic growth by overprotecting. I’ve heard stories of parents scheduling meetings with elementary, middle school, high school teachers, and even college professors to demand grade changes when their child does not get an A on a test. I’ve heard of parents renting an apartment close to their college-aged “child” to do laundry, clean up, and cook meals. I have had parents berate me on the sideline after a soccer game because I did not give their son enough playing time. I understand that on occasion a teacher or coach may make a mistake of assigning an inaccurate grade or not being fair with playing time, but in general poor grades and time on the bench are given because the performance was simply not good enough. The child or athlete may have studied or trained for hours, but that does not automatically entitle them to an A or more playing time. I know there a fine line between allowing your child to experience failure and managing self-esteem, but what message are we sending by constantly swooping in and taking away any disappointment or anguish that a child is supposed to experience with mistakes or failure? Kids need to feel sadness and frustration because they will learn and develop coping skills. However the parent who demands the teacher change the grade is conveying a message that failure is not normal, unacceptable, and must be avoided at all costs, even if it means gaining success the wrong way, such as intimidating a teacher. In the end this approach is more damaging than allowing the child to temporarily feel bad because failure is an inevitable part of life. When parents unnecessarily or prematurely step in the child is likely to believe the failure is wrong and terrible and therefore he/she might internalize this with thoughts of “There is something wrong with me and I am terrible.” One of the most impactful outcomes of overprotection is that the growth of coping skills is stunted. I’ve seen an unsettling increase in this through working with children in my practice and in the school setting. School is inherently frustrating, which is a good thing. Kids must deal with the natural and totally normal frustration of learning, not getting their way all the time, waiting for the teacher’s attention, a strict schedule, and even waiting to use the bathroom. School is supposed to be frustrating, but too many students cannot cope because adults have constantly stepped in to circumvent the frustration. Adults step in when the child cannot open a bag of chips, tie their shoes, zip their coat, watch their favorite show, download a new app, are not invited to a birthday party, cannot immediately solve a math problem, or they were not picked first during kickball. My advice: stop stepping in immediately. Let your child struggle with the bag of chips, shoes, or zipper. Tell them they have to wait until their sister’s show is over before they can watch their show or they cannot download that app because they need to go out and play. Talk to them about not being invited to the party or not being picked first. Let them feel a little agitated with the math problem (I know I did with algebra) before helping them. And when you step in, help them; do not do the problem for them. Believe me; the teachers know when a parent is doing the assignment. The feelings that accompany failure and mistakes, such as sadness, anger, frustration, anxiety, irritation, discouragement, confusion, and fatigue all have one thing in common. They are normal human feelings that everyone should experience on a regular basis.
Adults also need to reflect as to why they are so quick to step in and manage their child’s difficult emotions. The most common reason given is “It is my job. I’m the parent and I need to stick up for my child.” But in most of the examples I’ve given, the parent is not sticking up for their child. I could understand if someone was attacking or threatening the child, but a poor grade or limited playing time is not an attack. 99% of the time it is what the child had earned. The child’s answers were wrong, their paper had mistakes, they are not fast enough, or the other players have better skills.
Parents also need consider is their own feelings. Parents often intervene because they themselves cannot tolerate seeing their child struggle. It can be painful or distressful to witness your child failing, but this is part of being a parent. Parents need to be aware when their involvement is predominately motivated by a need to decrease their own distress. Nobody’s child is going to be the team captain, valedictorian, most popular, most artistic, the teacher’s pet, science fair winner, most creative, debate captain, chess champion, spelling bee champ, homecoming king/queen, and going to an Ivy League school on a full academic and athletic scholarship all wrapped into one. So, parents need stop acting like their child is entitled to all of these accolades. Let them get upset when they cannot open the bag of chips, don’t let them immediately download that app, let them sit the bench, and let them earn a C- (after all, that’s what they earned.) Kids are resilient and will figure out how to tolerate and navigate frustration. It is what they need because there will be countless times in the future when they will fail or experience disappointment; losing a game of 4-square, a poor PSSA scores, a crush doesn’t reciprocate feelings, a best friend moves across the country, forgotten homework assignments, not getting a preferred class because it is full, being rejected when asking someone to the prom, getting cut from a varsity team, losing a championship game, getting injured, not getting into a top college, having to transfer because of poor grades or homesickness, not getting a cool internship, not landing the dream job. The list goes on and on. Being a parent means letting your child learn from mistakes.
If you’ve managed to read this far, thank you and I commend your sustained attention in an age when articles longer than a paragraph are deemed too long. I’ll end on this. Another potential byproduct of preventing children from learning from failure is possible depression. Sadness is a natural and normal part of life. Depression is often characterized by beliefs that the sadness to going to be permanent. By shielding children from sadness and frustration we are unintentionally teaching them that failing is bad and the feelings that accompany failure are also bad. The sadness that comes with failing is tough enough to experience, but it is made worse because kids are likely to quickly attach their identity to failure i.e. Failure is bad, therefore I am bad. This can contribute to depression. Rather than understanding that everyone fails and the sadness is temporary, it seems more kids are internalizing failure as “something is wrong with me.” Plus, regular exposure to sadness and failure promotes the development of coping skills much like medical inoculations promote a defense against viruses.