Daring to (let your kids) fail

Dare to Fail print  by Lisa Mann Dirkes

Dare to Fail print by Lisa Mann Dirkes

There is a well-worn chapter in a book I love. The book automatically flips open to it, proof of the many times I have returned there for a pep talk. It's the chapter "The Blessing of Problems to Solve," from Wendy Mogel's fantastic parenting tome--drawn from both parenting research and Jewish traditional teachings--called The Blessing of a B Minus. I don't happen to be Jewish but that detail doesn't really matter here; the wisdom in the book transcends religious affiliation and speaks to the heart of parenting teens (and if you were a very early Nest & Launch reader, you might remember I also reviewed the book here).

A while back someone wrote in to us with a question about what to do when your child fails or is going through a rough patch: "I have awesome kids, but even so, sometimes they fail at something. It is bad enough when MY best isn't good enough, but I can hardly take it when their best isn't good enough for something they really want to do."  I've started to draft several responses but then I realized that this chapter nails it and applies really well to the reader's question about how we as parents can respond to our children's problems and failures.  Here are a few highlights:

"If we want to raise young adults who know how to solve problems, we must let them have problems to solve while they are still adolescents. Yet it's harder and harder to find parents willing to expose their children to difficulty. More often, parents keep their teens busy in adult-supervised activities so there is no time for trouble, or rush in to solve problems instead of leaving the solution in their teens' shaky hands...

"How to strike the right balance between appropriate guidance and restraint? The story of the Israelites' trip out of slavery in Egypt offers some clues.

"The book of Exodus describes the quality of God's presence during the Israelites' travels as a 'pillar of cloud by day...and a pillar of fire by night.' This beautiful image is a model for parents whose children are wandering in the wilderness of adolescence. Like God, you stand by, providing shade and light when needed, but mostly you stand back...you give him the freedom to make mistakes, even big ones.

I love that image of parenting--cloud and fire, shade and light. Mogel gives the following strategies for parents when their kids are faced with problems or failure (and each are described further in the book):

- Give them good suffering
- Wait it out
- Be empathic, not entangled
- Normalize setbacks
- Encourage them to enlist the aid of other adults
- Demonstrate confidence in your teen's problem-solving skills
- Distinguish dramas from emergencies
- When they create their own problems, let them experience the consequences
- Be a counselor, not a servant

"Our challenge as parents is to foster a loving attachment to teenagers' large spirits and ragged souls but stand slightly apart from their daily theatrics...the rhythms of parent-teen relationships change every day, which means you will succeed today and screw up tomorrow.

"Expect to be confused. Expect your sleep to be disturbed...Remind yourself, daily if you have to, that we serve our teens best not as active protectors or problem solvers but as tender, compassionate, composed listeners..." 

Okay, friends, we're going to be trying out a MWF posting schedule for the next while so Sarah and I can each make a dent in our academic writing loads. In the meantime, we'll continue to share good finds and links on our Facebook page throughout the week.  You can follow us by liking our page there. Okay, over and out.

The end of swooping season

When we first moved here last September, we were amused by the crazy bicycle helmets we saw everywhere! Each helmet sported plastic zipties or pipe cleaners sprouting out of the vents, giving a vaguely punk rock impression.

We asked around and found out that September and October is Swooping Season, when magpies become especially territorial about their hatchlings in their nests and divebomb anyone who gets too close--school children at recess are even victims sometimes! Bicyclists are especially targeted so they go to great lengths to discourage being attacked, including putting eyes on the back of their helmets, doing the zipties or pipe cleaners, etc. (though many experts say the tactics don't actually work).

As annoying as it is to be swooped by those angry birds, I feel for those bird parents. I can identify! The protective instinct is strong in us. We want to swoop in, fix things, flap our wings and, yes, peck out the eyes of anyone who gets close to messing with our kids. I was completely prepared to write a post in praise of swooping magpies.


And yet.  

I think there's an even better lesson here. Swooping season ends when the young fledgling birds start making their own forays out into the world and our swooping has to ebb, too. It's one of the hardest transitions in parenting I've had to make, the gradual hand-off of responsibility and decision making for what is, after all, their lives.

Case in point: Once one of my kids had an issue at school with some social meanness. We talked about it at home and I really really really had the mama-bear urge  to go address it with the school faculty. But this kiddo said "no, I've got this" and decided to ignore it for a bit longer. Then, when it didn't seem like it was going to resolve itself, the kiddo made an appointment to discuss it with a teacher. Just like that. (And then I went and ate three Cadbury Cherry Ripe bars from the stress of sitting on the sidelines, but that's a different story entirely.) Epiphany.

I love Anna Quindlen's advice: "When we dropped off our daughter [at school] they gave us a card with the words "What are YOU going to do about that problem?" They suggested we put it by the phone and read it when our kid called complaining about the roommate/the courses/the food/the advisor. There's way too much parental involvement at a time designed for separation."  

But, really, if this is going to work well I think we actually have to start before college drop-off, right? Now, I'm the first one to admit that this can be so hard. Those high school years are rife with Important Decisions and Momentous Things. Just remember that you're raising not just a college freshman but a wonderful, functioning adult. Yes, it can be painful to watch but, if we can step back from solving our kids' problems and become a more distant safety net in those last few pre-launch years, our older teens will flail and fail and figure things out. They'll ultimately gain more confidence for the leap into adulthood. We end up gradually becoming advisory rather than decidery (which I'm deeming a word, by the way) and our kids learn to do some joyous/independent/instructive swooping of their own.

Fellow mid-stage parents, unite! All together now: What are you going to do about that?  


The help


We've all been there. Maybe your son has an English essay deadline looming but feels stuck and wants your help. Or your daughter brings her history research paper to you for final editing.  How much help is enough and how much is too much?

For example, I'll admit I can be a pretty ruthless editor. I was a proofreader and editor when I first got out of college; I do love leaving some lovely red marks in those margins! And yet, when it comes to helping my kids with their school essays, I am stymied. Of course I want to help. And getting others to take an objective look at their work is a good habit to encourage in our kids, right? 

At the same time, I want to encourage them to own their work and to make sure the papers stay theirs. (And also? While I weigh these options, images of helicopter parents, tiger moms, hockey dads, and stage moms float through my mind. Yes, it gets crowded in there.)  I do think that somewhere in between leaving them alone and doing it for them there's a learning zone where we can be helpful.

(Warning: child development geekery ahead!) The education and child development worlds call this the zone of proximal development. Basically, it's the space between what a child can do unassisted and what he can't do yet at all. It's where the skills might be too difficult to do on his own but can be done with the right amount of support and encouragement ("scaffolding") from a knowledgable person. It's thought that it is in that zone, given some good scaffolding, where learning happens best. Or at least that's what Vygotsky thought. (Thanks for indulging me.)

I like what Brene Brown said in an interview with Krista Tippett recently:

I was editing a story [my daughter] wrote last night and she [asked] “so, are you saying you don’t think that’s good?”

And I looked at her and I said “I don’t know how to do this. I know how to grade papers, I know how to get things back from my editor (which is always really bloodied), but I don’t know how to do this with you.”

And she [said] “what do you mean you don’t know how?”

“I don’t know how. This is the first time I’ve ever edited a piece of fiction of yours. I don’t know how to do it.” And I said, “What do you want and what don’t you want?”

And she said, “I want you to fix the things that make the story not good but I don’t want you to make it your story.”

Brilliant! I love the idea of starting with the question what do you want and what don't you want?  Because--newsflash!--this is not actually about us or for our learning. Letting students determine the level of help keeps them in charge of the process. (Of course, if your child says "I want you to rewrite my paper" or "just do this math problem," you might have to reframe a bit.)

How is the homework situation at your house? How do you find the right balance in helping? What's worked and what hasn't?

. . .

p.s. Here are a few other hints that we've heard about or tried and liked:

-Try reading the essay out loud to your student writer and invite him to notice what works, what doesn't, and where he wants to make changes. Someone first did this for me when I was a university freshman and it gave me a fresh perspective on the essay and changed my writing approach.

-Don't just wholesale edit somewhere off on your own; go through it together.  When you notice a typo, explain the correction you'd suggest. Without rewriting it, note where a passage leaves you confused and talk together about ways to clarify it. Then send her off to rewrite and correct it herself.

-Keep it appropriate to the grade level. Your sixth grader does not need to compose an essay at college level standards (and shouldn't). If you have a chance, ask teachers what they expect and how much parent editing is expected or optimal. 

-Let them make mistakes. This is tough, I know, but we parents are the training wheels here and eventually those training wheels have to come off. (I read an article that said a staggering 1 in 5 parents continue to do substantial edits on their college-age children's papers.Yikes.) The goal is that our big kids and teens eventually take off and do this on their own. Swooping in at every difficulty or wobble can rob them of the chance to find their own balance and competence.

Blessings of a B Minus

The Blessing of a B Minus Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Resilient Teenagers.jpg

If you have children between 11 and 20 (or if you plan on your kids reaching those ages, for that matter), go get this book right now. Mogel's take on parenting teens is compassionate, wise, and inspired. Much like her earlier book The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, which was geared toward parents of younger children, Mogel draws from her understanding of Jewish teachings to reframe some of the challenges teens face (and the associated frustrations of parenting them) into blessings. 

In The Blessing of a B Minus, Mogel reminds us of, among others:

- The blessing of strange fruit: Accepting the unique glory of your teen

- The blessing of a B minus: The real lessons of homework, chores, and jobs

- The blessing of problems to solve: Learning from bad judgment and stress

- The blessing of breaking the rules: Real life as ethics lab

 Am I Jewish? No. And you don't have to be either to thoroughly enjoy this book. The ideas that Mogel discusses are universal and accessible for all.  For example, she uses the story of the Israelites' wandering in the desert with Moses. She notes that the presence of God was a "'pillar of cloud by day...and a pillar of fire by night.' This beautiful image is a model for parents whose children are wandering in the wilderness of adolescence. Like God, you stand by, providing shade and light when needed, but mostly you stand back. You wait to see if your child can solve problems on his own before stepping in; you let him experience the natural consequences of his poor decisions; and you give him the freedom to make mistakes, even big ones."

As the parent of three children (14, 17, 19) it's a great relief to read such a wonderful book that eases some of the anxieties we parents face during this stage of parenting. As a doctoral student studying parenting and child development, I'm just a little jealous I didn't write this! 

[edited to say: I should add that I don't completely mesh with one of the chapters, The Blessing of the Hangover, and some of you might not either. There are still great insights in that one; I just try to keep my teens further away from those mistakes than perhaps some parents do. Having said that, I still think teaching and then stepping away and allowing teens to make decisions (and mistakes) is what these years are all about.]