What do children learn about growing up and how do they learn it? I have been thinking about this question since reading a review of Jessica Lahey’s newly published book, “The Gift of Failure.” Different theories about how parents ruin their kids take turns as flavors of the month. Recently, considerable attention has been given to the idea that parents these days, under the guise of “helping” their children, intervene in various ways to prevent them from experiencing any failures. The idea is that as a result, children grow up feeling incompetent and overly dependent on their parents.
How do children learn to take responsibility for their own behavior? When my husband and I were dating (sounds like an old-fashioned word) I lost a pair of gloves in the theatre. I became totally distraught and we enlisted an usher with a flashlight to search for the gloves to no avail. My husband couldn’t believe that I could be so upset about a pair of gloves and he promptly rewrote the nursery rhyme about the three little kittens who cried when they lost their mittens. In his new version the momma cat said, “Kittens dear, have no fear, I’ll buy you a new pair.”
The origin of my upset was that as a child I had left a book outside overnight. It rained and the book when found was ruined. My mother was unforgiving and for years after the sight of the destroyed cover and wrinkled pages of that book served as a constant reproach.
My husband’s story was that he and his brother would fight about which program they would listen to on the radio. His mother, furious about the fighting, stormed into their room and threw the radio out of the window. The end of that story was that when his father came home they all went to the store and bought a new radio. Perhaps his legacy was that our children when growing up would say, “Never give Dad the tickets to hold – you’ll never see them again,” as he frantically searched through all his pockets.
Do children learn from the consequences of their behavior? Is what they learn not what we might intend as parents? Most parents I talk to believe strongly in the importance of consequences. In fact, most often the search is for the kind of consequences that will teach children what parents want them to learn. Most often it is what leads parents to thoughts of punishment.
Two familiar complaints from parents relate to children’s lack of concern about being late to school and forgetting either their homework or some other item required by the teacher. I have heard parents bemoan the fact that there are no consequences for the children at school. Parents ask, “Why isn’t the child sent to the principal’s office when he is late? Why does the teacher just simply tell her it will be okay to bring it in tomorrow?”
Teachers blame parents and parents blame teachers but the general feeling is that something is amiss in the way children are growing up. When I think about the impact for me of that book left out in the rain, I can now recognize my mother’s response as understandable in terms of her own life experience and the depression era in which I was growing up.
I see the behavior of parents today as a product of everything else that is part of our social fabric and culture today. So much that is written seems to scold parents for the way they are raising their children. I look forward to reading Lahey’s book as I am not sure if it is her point or that of the reviewer that parents have a desperate need to prove their parenting skills. Many parents today do feel insecure about their parenting skills and it often seems that in our rush to help them (or more likely their children) we are making them feel even more incompetent and dependent on ever-changing prescriptions for child-rearing.
I know that to help children we first have to understand their behavior. In the same way, we need to do a better job of understanding the behavior of parents.