Giving Kids The Room To Fail
Giving Kids The Room To Fail
An article in today’s Wall Street Journal is talking about something we all know about – the “Overprotected American Child.” Even if you are not raising small children right now, you are seeing either family members or friends raise small children.
You are reading the same stories about “free-range” parenting that gets the authorities called. Raise your hand if you’ve heard the term “I can’t adult” from someone under 30. There are multiple stories about skyrocketing depression among millenials who can’t cope with failure.
The WSJ column puts it this way:
Overzealous parenting can do real harm. Psychologists and educators see it as one factor fueling a surge in the number of children and young adults being diagnosed with anxiety disorders. According to a study published this year in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, the number of children ages 6 to 17 whose parents said they were currently diagnosed with anxiety grew from 3.5% in 2007 to 4.1% in 2012. And in a 2017 survey of more than 31,000 college students by the American College Health Association, 21.6% reported that they had been diagnosed with or treated for anxiety problems during the previous year. That is up from 10.4% in a 2008 survey.
A big 2007 study, published in Clinical Psychology Review, surveyed the scientific literature on how much parenting influences the development of anxiety in kids. The parenting behavior that had the strongest impact of any kind was “granting autonomy”—defined as “parental encouragement of children’s opinions and choices, acknowledgment of children’s independent perspectives on issues, and solicitation of children’s input on decisions and solutions of problems.” More autonomy was associated with less childhood anxiety. (Genes play an even bigger role, however, in individual differences in anxiety.)
For children who are already anxious, overprotecting them can make it worse. “It reinforces to the child that there is something they should be scared of and the world is a dangerous place and ‘I can’t do that for myself,’ ” says Rebecca Rialon Berry, a clinical psychologist at the NYU Langone Child Study Center.
We have seen this with the recent school shootings in Parkland and Santa Fe. Even with statistical evidence that the odds of being killed in a mass shooting is much lower than being killed in a car accident or struck by lightning, students are now hyper-focused and consumed by the fear of the inevitability of a school shooting happening to them.
When a child isn’t raised to be independent, is it any wonder that they end up completely dependent – and then these same parents are in court, trying to get the kid out of their house? Granted, that is an extreme case, but the overprotected child turns into the coddled college student, who turns into the working millennial who still has a parent coming to job interviews.
So, how to fix it? Start with letting kids fail in small things.
Alan E. Kazdin, a professor emeritus of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University, recommends that parents repeatedly encourage independence in small, lower-stakes situations, like having children start homework on their own, do the dishes or choose a gift for a friend. While dishes and other chores may just seem like duties, they are also moves toward independence: Children need these skills, and the sense of mastery they engender, to become self-sufficient adults. These are “practice trials,” Dr. Kazdin says. He suggests that when children make these efforts, parents offer enthusiastic and specific praise, along with a pat on the back or a high-five. Issuing a good-natured challenge—“I bet you can’t make your sandwich all by yourself”—can also make it more likely that a child will follow through. What doesn’t work is nagging, issuing reprimands or punishing a child for not being more independent, he says.
Of course, when children try something on their own, it doesn’t always go smoothly. They may take the wrong bus or choose not to study for a test—and then bomb it.
Such outcomes point to the one autonomy milestone that parents find particularly difficult, says Joseph F. Hagan Jr., clinical professor in pediatrics at the University of Vermont and the co-editor of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Bright Futures guidelines for health professionals. “Part of independence is to make your own decisions,” he says—including “the right to make a wrong decision.”
I fully admit that my own parenting is uneven and doesn’t measure up to the level of independence that I had at my older children’s ages. Part of this is due to having a 12 year old on the autism spectrum – but even he, with consistent work in therapy, has mastered using the toaster oven and has moved on to using the microwave. On the flip side, my oldest daughter, thanks to her life with her brothers, is barely fazed by any babysitting job, even ones including special needs children. As a result, she has made herself a marketable babysitter for lower rates, even though she isn’t old enough to drive yet. This allows her to pay for her own portion of her monthly cell phone bill, buy her own clothes and birthday gifts for her friends, and has given her a sense of money management that her friends don’t have yet.
This morning, being Saturday, my husband and I had the luxury of getting an extra hour’s worth of sleep, even though all the kids were awake. When we came into the kitchen, we discovered that our daughter had made omelets for her brothers and herself for breakfast, and our youngest was happily eating the apple that his sister had cut up for him. Giving children the appropriate levels of independence, each according to their abilities, does pay off.
But the kids have to be allowed to fail. Obviously, parents can and should step in when it is necessary (we got our daughter a math tutor when she was in 5th grade, for example – not something we wanted her to continue to fail in at such a young age), but I have let my daughter make mistakes now, as I was allowed to when I was growing up. We see it in small things (like not forgetting her cross-country uniform after forgetting it once), and it allows her to handle to bigger things (she made arrangements for her homework with all her teachers when she was going to miss a day of school due to vacation travel).
I still get comments like “Mom, are any of my socks clean?” so it’s still a work in progress. But I hope that in giving her, and eventually my other kids, the room to fail, they will all eventually become the best, most independent version of themselves that they can be.