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How to Succeed at Letting Your Child Fail

“I would look good in a Porsche, Mom. I’d like one for my 16th birthday,” Kay Wyma recalls her teenage son remarking nonchalantly on an ordinary day carpooling down Preston Road. The Highland Park mom of five hit the brakes. What had she done to sow such entitlement? Was it that she had, in fact, done everything to ensure a happy childhood for her brood – a cake-and-eat-it fairytale of achievement without struggle? Wasn’t that what every other parent does?

“I couldn’t believe he said it. It cut me to my core,” she says. “Then I walked into a house full of breakfast dishes, beds unmade and clutter everywhere, and I realized they are looking to me to serve them for everything. Something is really wrong here.”

Ask any family therapist, and they’ll tell you the Wymas are not alone. In today’s über-competitive parenting environment, Mom and Dad will do anything to race in and spare their children from the trials and tribulations of life. From helping with homework (sometimes even doing it for them), intervening with a bully at school or lobbying a teacher for a better grade to calling about a birthday invitation not received, pursuing every interest their offspring mentions (letting them quit when they don’t like it) and filling out college applications, nothing is too sacred when it comes to protecting our greatest assets. Some parents go as far as shielding their young ones from the death of a family member or friend.

All of these actions come from a genuine place, says Marla “Malkie” Schick, MSSW, LCSW, clinical social worker at Jewish Family Service of Greater Dallas. “Parents love their children and want to provide the best for them in every way,” she says, but the fallout is an affliction of irresponsibility. “These kids grow up and don’t know how to manage without their parents stepping in to save them.”

Bessie Ann Christenson, M.A., LPC-S, sees children who’ve had everything taken care of for them by doting parents in her role as clinical program manager at The Parenting Center in Fort Worth. But instead of being content and well-adjusted, they’re often struggling with emotional issues or even depression.

Could it be that in our quest to create a happy childhood at all costs, we’re setting our kids up to be the opposite: unhappy and unequipped?

Who said the easiest path is the best?
Fueled by her son’s unrealistic request, Wyma ­– also a blogger writing about mothering tweens and teens at TheMoatBlog – and her family, ages 14 to 3 at the time, began a yearlong experiment to replace entitlement with empowerment.

She’s the first to admit it wasn’t easy. “To think about turning a ship that big was almost too much to bear,” Wyma says. Like any other mom, her enabling was paved with good intentions – for her children to be joyful and free of what she deemed unnecessary pain. Now she knows that her attitude was a detriment to their well-being.

So they started small: making beds every day. Eventually they progressed to more challenging responsibilities, such as shopping for groceries and making dinner on their own. And they were allowed to experiment with trial and error (mostly error) in the secure confines of their home.

Wyma, who wrote a book about their journey, Cleaning House: A Mom’s 12-Month Experiment to Rid Her Home of Youth Entitlement, recalls her own reluctance to stick to the plan (not to mention the kids’ initial pushback). “When I first saw the bed unmade, I had to fight the urge to make it,” she says in the book. Her psyche fell back on familiar territory – making excuses for her beloved son. “He just forgot. He has such a good heart. I’m sure he meant to make it; he has a lot on his mind.”

But the moment served as a turning point. “We all know it’s easier to do it ourselves than make the kids do it,” she says. “But who said the easiest path is the best one?”

Wyma, who worked for Roger Staubach in real estate and Dan and Marilyn Quayle in the Bush 41 White House before her stint in “home management,” got a revelation: “When I step in, fix problems and do those little household chores or homework, I send the message that they can’t do it themselves. And if they can’t do the small things, how will they ever attempt the big things?”

Along the journey, a wondrous thing started to happen. Her kids began seeking out new tasks they could tackle on their own and expressing a bona fide sense of pride and accomplishment. That’s not to say the whining isn’t still there, because they’re normal kids, Wyma says, “but now they embrace opportunities rather than see them as stumbling blocks or look to me to get through it.”

Failure to launch
Several other authors are sounding the same battle cry as Wyma. Dan Kindlon, child psychologist and lecturer at Harvard University, rallies against what he labels our “discomfort with discomfort” in his book Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age. The result of this unprecedented obsession with childhood happiness is parental over-investment that leads, ultimately, to a snowballing of narcissism that is damaging our kids’ chances of long-term success.

Tony Wagner, an expert in residence at Harvard’s new Innovation Lab, cautions that just because we do everything for our kids, from sending them to the right school to ensuring good grades, there are no guarantees they’ll do well in life. In his book, Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, Wagner notes that more than one-third of all recent college graduates are living at home today ­­– either unemployed or underemployed. What they’re lacking is the capacity to be innovative and entrepreneurial; they’ve never developed the drive. Yet innovation is the skill in greatest demand in the workplace and the one least likely to be outsourced or automated, he says.

Arminta Lee Jacobson, Ph.D., with the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of North Texas, sees this lack of motivation and creativity firsthand. College and graduate students often struggle with indecision because their parents always told them what to do. Parents want to control the strings even in college; faculty report instances in which students, or worse, parents, complain when a student doesn’t make an A. In fact, some parents are accompanying their adult children on job interviews and eagerly attending social networking site LinkedIn’s recently contrived “Bring in Your Parents [to Work] Day.”

“As our kids age, the youth entitlement problem leads to a needy society, incapable of critical thinking; incapable of making decisions; incapable of problem-solving, creating, deducing or finding cures,” Wyma says. “Being over-served leads to atrophy of personal initiative. No wonder our kids opt out rather than dive into responsibility-laden opportunities.”

Christenson adds that if kids aren’t prepared to adapt to less-than-perfect situations, they’re going to have a “failure to launch.” In other words, they will be psychologically encumbered and possibly still living in your basement when they’re 40.

It’s critical that parents take a close look at their own motivations: Is this for them or for you? Often The Parenting Center sees moms and dads who want to be their child’s best friend, but there is a fine line between selflessness and selfishness. “It’s inevitable. You have to let them go at some point,” Christenson says.

So how do you foster innovation in children, helping them prepare for a successful future in a demanding world? Through struggle, risk-taking and failure, experts say. This is how students build self-confidence and a strong work ethic, two qualities that can lead to achievement and that our students are seriously lacking, especially compared to students in other parts of the world, Wagner reports.

What failure is … and isn’t
Christenson is quick to point out that allowing your child to be a failure is different from allowing your child to learn through failing (the goal). Parents need to support their children and help them learn from their mistakes – not accuse them of not being good enough.

She notes that in her experience, parents are hesitant to dole out “tough love” because they fear the child will suffer from low self-esteem. That’s faulty thinking. “Criminals have high self-esteem, but they don’t make good choices,” Christenson says. “Self-esteem is not as important as self-control.”

Wyma learned that she was actually fueling low self-esteem by sending an implied message to her kids that they weren’t capable. “The entitlement attitude, seemingly a sign of self-importance and arrogance, actually conceals a cavern of insecurity,” she says in her book. “So much for my ‘you’re so great’ kudos when they’re rarely backed by actions to prove I believe it.”

Ownership is key, experts say. Jacobson and Schick bristle at the term “failure” and prefer to use words like challenges or opportunities when discussing children. “Failure for young children is often the result of developmentally inappropriate expectations,” Jacobson explains. “They may be given toys and games for older children that result in failure and discouragement. They may be challenged with academic tasks they are not ready for, like reading, which makes them not like reading in the future or be afraid to try.”

Alternatively, she encourages parents to have ongoing two-way communication with their children and teens. Instead of the goal being “make sure they don’t fail,” listen to their feelings and encourage them realistically instead of showering them with empty praise. Give children choices they can own along with guidance and clear consequences.

The professor of development and family studies recalls her own experience as a high school student. She was about to miss out on an opportunity for recognition because of procrastination. “My mother offered to help me make a schedule to complete the project,” Jacobson says. “We sat down together and made the schedule, and I completed my project on time. My mother didn’t remind me about my schedule or do it. I had the choice to succeed or fail and clearly understood the consequences.”

Success is motivating for children, youth and adults – if it is their success, she stresses.

Never too late
It may be difficult to acknowledge, but Christenson stresses that the best window to allow your children to fail is when they’re very young, even toddlers, when the consequences are minimal.

Obviously kids can’t take care of their own physical needs at such a tender age, but it’s not too soon to consider whether they can start meeting challenges on their own. For instance, if your son forgets to bring his homework to school, can he and his teacher solve the dilemma instead of you running up to the school? If a child steals a toy from your daughter, are you comfortable letting her work it out?

“You can still be there when they’re experiencing a challenge and discuss it together, but the important thing is you are not always solving it for them,” Schick says.

Even if you miss the boat while they’re young, it’s never too late to start training for independence, insists Ana Homayoun, founder and director of Green Ivy Educational Consulting, who works with teens to help them take charge of their lives through organization, time management, personal purpose and overall wellness.

Homayoun, who penned The Myth of the Perfect Girl: Helping Our Daughters Find Authentic Success and Happiness in School and Life and That Crumpled Paper Was Due Last Week: Helping Disorganized and Distracted Boys Succeed in Life, encourages parents to begin collaborative conversations with their older children. Start slowly by letting the adolescent take over two things that Mom or Dad are doing for him. After he masters those, pick two more.

As a teen expert, she also advises parents to sit down with their teen and ask what she really wants for her future and work together to find solutions for accomplishing her goals. In addition, help the student design an organizational system that is easy to use so she can hold herself accountable; then meet once a week to discuss her progress.

Wyma admits that it’s much easier training her younger children than her oldest, who is 17. Recently, he accused her of “bad parenting” because she didn’t help him register for the SAT “like everyone else’s parent.”

“Will my younger son ask for the same help in a few years?” Wyma says. “No, because he knows he can do it.”

While the Wymas are garnering attention for their family changes, not everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon. Wyma has encountered captious comments such as, “Well, your house must be all put together and nice now.”

Just the opposite, Wyma says. “We are real, and we struggle.” But the best thing about experiencing failure for this family of five? They get back up – and that’s an essential life lesson.

“It really isn’t about making the beds. It’s about equipping and empowering our kids,” Wyma says.

Published February 2014