When our kids are little, we teach them winning isn’t everything, but when they reach adolescence,
we expect them to be fierce competitors. (igor kisselev, www.close-up.biz/ Getty Images)
August 23, 2018
Are we setting our kids up to do the one thing we haven’t taught them to do well: Fail?
By Heidi Stevens
I spent a recent Thursday evening in a little bookstore filled with parents who gather monthly to talk about raising resilient kiddos.
We shared stories about life’s slings and arrows and when (and whether) to help our children dodge them. We swapped book recommendations — Meg Jay’s “Supernormal” and Wendy Mogel’s “Voice Lessons” came up, among others. We decided everyone should see “Eighth Grade.”
We talked about the parts of parenting that feel most contradictory and complicated — the parts for which we relied on one set of habits and instincts, only to wake up one morning and realize, bam, that’s all wrong now.
For example: When our kids are little, in the current parenting culture, we’re encouraged to shield them from bruising competition. As one bookstore mom put it, “There are no winners and losers anymore.”
Participation trophies. Parents yelling, “Good try, buddy!” after every strikeout. Soccer games with no visible scoreboard.
At my son’s Little League games this summer, every time a kid asked the score, the coach would answer, “Don’t worry about the score.”
(Honestly. What kid doesn’t worry about the score?)
But that’s what we tell them. They’re little. They’re out there to have fun.
Then: Our kids reach middle school, which is when they have to start preparing for high school, and high school, which is when they have to start preparing for college, and college, which is when they have to start preparing to pay off their student debt — sorry, which is when they have to start preparing for the rest of their lives (of paying off student debt), and we expect them to be fierce, dog-eat-dog competitors.
Take all the AP classes! Play all the instruments! Make all the teams! Don’t settle for a 4.0 GPA! Go for a 4.4! That’s a thing now!
At parent orientation for my daughter’s middle school, we were encouraged to sign up to receive alerts any time one of our kids’ grades dips below a certain percentage throughout the quarter. “I tell parents not to feel like they have to set that level at 95 percent,” the orientation leader told us.
We have to be reminded not to set an actual alarm when our kids start to receive A minuses?
“There’s no room to fail,” another bookstore mom said.
So. To recap. Somehow we expect our kids to be cut out for grueling, nonstop, across-the-board competition by the time they’re, what, 12? Fourteen? Sixteen, at the latest.
And we prepare them for that expectation by teaching them … not to compete.
“What’s the score?”
Don’t worry about the score. Until you’re a teenager. And then worry about nothing else. Worry about it like your very life — or at least your self-worth — depends on it.
Are we setting our kids up to do the one thing we haven’t taught them to do well? Fail?
I ran this all by John Duffy, one of my go-to experts on childhood development. He’s a clinical psychologist and the author of “The Available Parent: Expert Advice for Raising Successful and Resilient Teens and Tweens” (Viva Editions).
First, he stressed, our instincts are in the right place.
“We want our children to be childlike and innocent for as long as possible,” he said.
And because we’re constantly fending off screens and other stimuli that we worry are harming them developmentally, he said, “we’re inclined to soften the blow.”
“Thus, we reward them for just showing up at the game.”
But we know showing up won’t be enough, long term. So around middle school, we start to prioritize “success.”
“The definition of which seems to be narrowing for an awful lot of us,” Duffy said. “Impossibly high grades, accelerated classes, multiple extracurricular activities. The shift is so jarring and anxiety-provoking for our children, increasingly filling the waiting rooms of therapists and school social workers as kids try to regain their bearings.”
We need to calibrate our approach to both developmental periods — early childhood and adolescence, he said.
“First, it’s important that we recognize the resilience of our young children,” he said. “We need to recognize that they can handle a loss in a game with grace, or approach a teacher when they miss an assignment.”
Their own knowledge that they’re competent and resilient, he said, will help them better handle the demands and inevitable setbacks of middle and high school.
And we should think long and hard about what we consider a setback.
“We need to be prepared to broaden our definition of success for them to include skills and aptitudes that may not show up on a bumper sticker or a report card,” Duffy said. “Grades are not reflections of our parenting. Grades and other feedback bear their own natural consequences, for better or worse. And again, it is here where kids learn, organically, how things work in the world outside their school and home. More confidence and resilience gained.”
It’s hard to let our kids taste defeat and disappointment, at any age. But they’re inevitable. And being OK with that — making sure our kids see us being OK with that — seems like a decent recipe for success.
“In the end, their stories belong to them,” Duffy said. “Our job is to walk alongside them, facilitating them, as allies, guides and consultants.”
Knowing the score. And making sure our love and pride aren’t the least bit conditional upon it.
August 23, 2018