Giving Kids The Room To Fail

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.

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7 Comments
  • Robin H says:

    This article gives me hope! This is how I raised my kids and they are well adjusted independent and successful college students (one graduating in 2 weeks). I’m on a chat board with parents of one of my kids and they ask for some of the stupidest things for their kids. One asked for a dentist recommendation. Um, I gave both my kids an insurance card and the log in info when they went away to school and told them if they need doctors to go online and find one. The best story is when son was in kindergarten and daughter was 3 we all (except her) came down with a stomach virus. She made herself a bowl of cereal for breakfast and hubby managed to make her some soup and she happily watched videos all day until we could get out of bed (and the bathroom). I told both of them not to marry anyone that hasn’t lived out on their own for at least some time. And that means having to pay their expenses on time every month and get their laundry clean.

  • parker says:

    I grew up on a farm, had chores starting at age 6, and through my experiences on the farm I learned several important lessons. First, if you want something you have to work for it. Secondly, when you make a mistake or fail to perform the task at hand, it is you who is responsible for making things right. Thirdly, if you fail twice, there is always the third or fourth time to make it right.

    I fell down through the branches of an ash tree when I was ten, about 30 feet down to the ground. In the process I broke my left arm just above the wrist and just below the elbow. Mom took me to the doctor and lectured me on being careful when climbing trees. Dad when he came in after finishing chores, including some of my assigned chores, asked me if I learned anything from my experience. I thought about his question for a few minutes and said “make sure when I get on a branch that it can support my weight”. Dad laughted hard for what seemed like a long time, then hugged me.

    • Jim says:

      My father grew up on a farm, and, though we lived in town, he expected me and my younger brother to work around the house as was his experience on the farm. I can remember at age 6 working as his apprentice as he relaced the guttering on a house the family had just purchased. A few months later he installed insulation in the roof space and, as it was nearly summer, got me out of bed at about 3:00 AM when it was still cool to go up in the roof space with him. He needed me to creep into the tight spaces where a 6 foot tall man could not reach.

      I am sure I am not the only child who worked like this, but, the difference is that I and my brother are both autistic. [I was diagnosed in 1996.] In the 1950s no one knew about very smart autistic children, so we were treated like any other children, though both of us, especially me, were ‘difficult’. I present more severe autistic traits than my brother. Because in the 1950s society was more structured and ordered and we went to an old-fashioned private school with a quite ‘military’ style of management, we prospered. Having worked as a educator/behaviour management specialist with autistic children and adults for over 40 years I know now that had I not had, what Dr Temple Grandin called strict ‘manners lessons’, I would likely have not succeeded personally and professionally. Father, being ex-military and a perfectionist, never allowed uncivil behaviour to go uncorrected. Being ‘different’ is not an excuse for indolence, but modern-day ‘pity-professionals’ are far too ready to excuse children who are different the requirement to learn to act and work with civility and independence in society. But I guess SJWs need to have ‘victims’ to justify their miserable existence.

  • CApatriot says:

    Parker, we must be siblings! My Pop used to say the exact same thing, “well… did you learn anything from that?” We did the same thing with our kids unless we were there to see that what they were doing might really hurt them beyond a, “told you so.”

    How would you know was “salty” is if you haven’t tasted something salty or used too much salt?

  • GWB says:

    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.
    Honestly, though diagnosing the kids with “anxiety disorders” has an awful lot to do with it, too. If everything wrong in your life is a “disorder” to be treated, then it’s easy to see where kids are going to have a lot of disorders.

    the world is a dangerous place and ‘I can’t do that for myself
    You realize that’s the whole point, right? It’s a feature, not a bug, to the progs?
    The only folks who can “do that for myself” are those with enough money to overcome the limits. Which means only the technocracy can sustain the technocracy.

    What doesn’t work is nagging, issuing reprimands or punishing a child for not being more independent
    IOW, “Oh, they need to be more independent… but we can’t do that with negative motivation! That would hurt their self-esteem!” *EYEROLL*

    Yes, independence. Yes, room to fail – and not excusing their failure. Room to *GROW*.

  • Bettina says:

    OK, I am going to get a little “salty” here …. It was never overtly stated, but always implied in my family, that only virgin children were welcome under the family roof. Once you were ready to partake of adult pleasures, you were considered an adult and expected to move out and be self supporting. As a healthy young person, that provided great motivation to get up and out — and to STAY up and out..

  • Jeffersonian says:

    My childhood in the 60s was probably fairly conventional. My dad was raised in town ,mostly by his mother as his dad died young and her brief next marriage to an abusive man soured her on marriage. My mom was farmgirl who knew the value and necessity of hard work. As townies we always had chores to do, yardwork, etc. We didn’t get an allowance. My twin and I shared a paper route starting when we were nine, opened checking accounts and were responsible for collecting subscription money and paying for the papers we sold. We shoveled snow for money and I had a lawn mowing business when I was 11. My parents insisted that homework was done and expected us to treat people with respect. Yes, there were consequences. They barely helped with homework even though they were both very smart. We learned to not fail. And in our limited free time we had much autonomy, being sent out of the house with the admonition to only come home for dinner or if we were bleeding. I don’t see that happening much today.

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