Parents want their children to be successful. Success in today’s terms has come to mean getting high grades to get into a good school, to get a good (meaning high paying) job. It is not surprising that this has created the kind of pressure on young people to succeed that in many instances has led to a loss of pleasure in learning and to children’s lack of self-confidence.
In her book, “The Gift of Failure,” Jessica Lahey writes about the importance of children experiencing failure in order to learn from their mistakes and develop confidence in their own abilities. Lahey, a middle and high school teacher describes parents taking over for their children and rescuing them from any potential failure situations. But as children grow, in many situations it is often difficult as a parent to determine when to step in and when to let a child work things out on her own.
It may be more helpful to think in terms of building success rather than allowing failure. When children fall down in the process of learning to walk, we don’t stop them from walking in order to prevent them from getting hurt. We do try to protect them, however, by taking away obstacles in their path and preventing them from walking in places where they would get hurt. Children are not deterred from trying to walk and are excited by the sense of mastery that comes when they succeed.
The question of how far to let children do things on their own and when to protect them gets more complicated as children develop. Parents often talk to me about the frustration of their two year olds who always want to do things they are not yet able to do – or parents think they are not yet able to do safely. How much do you allow? And how much frustration can the child – or you – take.
This is not always a matter of a child trying to climb up to the medicine cabinet – or to reach the hidden cookies. Often, the toys children have break, or pieces get lost, or a particular toy is really beyond the ability of your child. The child’s failure in those situations is not especially constructive. This may be a time to be protective by telling your child directly that this is too hard and will be put away to try again another time.
The other side of this, of course, is that a child succeeds at a task but imperfectly – or at least not up to mom or dad’s standards. Here we can build feelings of success by withholding corrections. Visiting friends once, the husband set the table to be helpful. He then jokingly told me to watch how his wife would come in and rearrange the napkins. Sure enough, that was just what happened. Husbands are not children but the same point does apply. Success means feeling helpful rather than inadequate. Any corrections can be made ahead of the next time.
With so much emphasis on academic learning we often forget about the importance of social learning in contributing to success. In the course of learning the rules of social behavior, children too often are admonished, scolded or punished for behavior they are still developing the ability to control. This is where parents can be so important in helping children become successful.
When conflicts arise between children often what is needed is to clarify for them what happened, such as “Your friend wanted to play with that and you weren’t ready to share it.” Then, depending on their ages help them figure out a solution. Maybe next time a child could be helped to put away his more precious possessions before his friend comes to play.
When a child is expressing his feelings physically by hitting or pushing, both he and the other child need adult intervention. Both need protection, one from being hurt, the other from his inability to control himself as yet. Verbal corrections are not what help children develop their own internal controls. The support of a parent providing the needed control can move the child toward successful experiences rather than repeated failures.
Nothing succeeds like success. As parents, starting when our children are very young, we have a big role in helping to support our children’s own efforts toward that goal.