Letting kids stumble

The other day I was perusing Facebook and came across a video of a newly born giraffe attempting to take his first steps. His mother stood above him and watched as he repeatedly teetered on wobbly legs only to fall sideways, backwards, and even flat on his face. Each time, he lay on the ground, catching his breath, and his mother watched and waited. Occasionally she gave him an encouraging lick or a nudge of her head as a show of support, but it was obvious this was something the baby giraffe needed to learn through trial, error, and perseverance. Eventually he did, and if it’s possible for an animal to beam with pride, he did that as well. He happily experimented with his new legs and became more brave and confident with each step. I couldn’t help but root for the little guy and share in his success and joy.

As someone who works with kids and parents, I naturally made the connection between giraffe parenting and human parenting. How many of us are willing to stand and watch while our children figure things out on their own, struggle, fail, and keep trying until they succeed? Are we more inclined to pave the path for our children and try to remove obstacles? Do we jump in before they fail? Do we constantly worry about protecting their self-esteem and warding off hurts and frustrations?

Twenty years ago we saw a developing trend toward helicopter parenting that blew up into a form of overprotectiveness which, through the benefit of hindsight, we now realize truly harmed kids. This group, now young adults, has few coping skills and cannot handle frustrations and roadblocks, thus leading to a higher number of suicides and much higher rates of anxiety and depression. Because we didn’t want our children to face all the small failures that are part of growth, we created a generation of young people who can’t handle failure at all. We didn’t help them; we massively crippled them.

Parents today are seeing the damage caused from carrying our children rather than forcing them to walk on their own. We are seeing a return to “old school parenting,” where kids join sports teams and take music lessons and plug away at it until they get it right. They practice, put in sweat equity, enjoy small successes that build their self-esteem and small failures that build their character, and guess what? They’re growing, maturing, and learning to stand on their own two feet.

As we start a new school year, I encourage you to take this proven philosophy and apply it to your children’s learning. As I told my kids when they were growing up, they had one job and that job was school. Make your kids responsible for their own job, and that includes keeping an agenda, putting effort into homework and turning it in on time, studying for tests and quizzes, and taking any concerns or questions they may have to the teacher. Your job is to be there, watching and encouraging, but not interfering. Your job is to teach them personal responsibility and independence. If they make mistakes – and they will – they must face the consequences in order to learn and do better the next time.

Whatever you do, don’t make excuses for children’s lack of responsibility and don’t ask teachers to continually give them another chance. If this means they earned a zero, then help them by discussing their options and how they might avoid any zeroes in the future. If it means they failed a test, help them determine if it was from lack of understanding or lack of effort. Provide a support system for the former and consequences for the latter. But don’t try to get a retake or argue that your child deserves a do over. This is where healthy support becomes unhealthy interference, and at this point, you are harming rather than helping your child.

If you deprive kids of consequences, you are only crippling them. Better to let them stumble today than to cripple them for a lifetime.

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