We all want our children to be successful. Sometimes we want it so badly that our well-intentioned actions instead set them up for failure. Ironically, by not allowing kids to learn by failing, we put them at risk for more profound failure later in life.
That’s the view of author and educator Jessica Lahey, whose 2015 bestseller “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed” has made her a popular speaker at schools across the country.
When she visits schools, Lahey meets separately with students, staff, and parents. Frequently, she said in an interview with Compositive, kids open up to her about how much pressure they feel under from their parents to match the accomplishments of a high-achieving sibling, or of the parents themselves when they were of a similar age.
“What I hear most often from kids is ‘please tell my parents I’m not my brother or my sister. I am not my parents at my age. I am not their do-over.’” Too often, Lahey said, we think of our children as “as extension of ourselves, and a report cards on us as parents.”
As a result, some parents micromanage their children’s lives, even stepping in to do homework or fill out college applications, so that their children do not have to experience the bracing but salutary feeling of failure.
In psychology, the term for this unhealthy dynamic is “enmeshment.” Lahey described it this way during the interview:
“When we are so invested in someone’s successes and failures that we don’t separate them from our own, which is damaging on an emotional and mental health basis for both people involved. Say I have a kid not doing well in school. I see it as my failure not my child’s. My ability to see myself as a successful human being is so predicated on my kid’s success or failure that there is no separating the two.”
If parents could surrender their own ego needs, they would realize that allowing their children to founder and even fail on their own provides the best possible learning experience, and paves the way for future success.
In fact, Lahey writes in her book, parents should focus on three goals to help their children succeed:
- Embracing opportunities to fail;
- Finding ways to learn from failure;
- Creating positive home-school relationships.
The first two goals may seem clear, but how does the home-school relationship factor in? Lahey says in this, the era of parent portals, enmeshed parents get over-involved in communicating with their child’s school.
“It should be the child’s job to act as conduit between home and school. But the portal has allowed parents to decide to assume that responsibility, some checking the portal 20 times per day,” she said. “Sometimes we have to completely jump the shark before things begin to change, and increasingly, I’m hearing at least some parents say that relationships with kids are starting to suffer, and maybe this over-involvement doesn’t feel so good. Something feels off.”
If Lahey could offer parents just one piece of advice, it would be this: Take the long view. What is the long-term goal for your child?
“Stepping in to prevent failure does not help your kid handle adversity the next time something comes up,” she said. “The long-term view keeps you from jumping in, solving every crisis for your kid in the moment.”
Activity: Learning From Mistakes and Failures