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Failing to succeed

Posted on 28 October 2015

Just six weeks after starting secondary school I have done what I vowed I would never do and taken my daughter’s forgotten PE kit to school.  As a result, she was spared a detention and unnecessary tears. But what has she learnt from this?

Full disclosure; over the years the infractions I have rescued my children from are many and varied.  I stand guilty of writing my children’s class presentations, researching projects on their behalf, completing half-finished models and making excuses for their lack of piano practice.

I know from conversations with friends that I’m in good company choosing to rescue my children from a ticking-off rather than letting them take the rap. What impact is this having on them?  Can a parent do too much for their child?  This question was examined by parenting expert Professor Judith Locke in her study: “An examination by parenting professionals of the concept of over parenting.”

Love-bombing versus purposeful neglect

Locke recognizes that most parents want to give their children the best start in life. The purpose of her study was to learn from psychologists, teachers and counselors, what happens to students who aren’t allowed to suffer through setbacks.

The stories they told make for hilarious but uncomfortable reading and include; parents completing their child’s school assignments, even at university level, dropping off forgotten lunch, uniform, PE kit, homework to school, not letting their teenage child take public transport and wading in to settle their child’s quarrels with peers.

As well intentioned as these acts of parental love-bombing are experts agree they do not allow our children to develop independence or become fully functioning, community minded adults. 

To clarify, Locke isn’t suggesting parents adopt a Summer Hill circa 1970’s, Lord of the Flies approach to parenting.  Rather she suggests over-effortful parenting can be too much of a good thing with negative consequences for our children.

She quantifies parenting efforts in terms of “parental responsiveness,” which is the amount we respond to our child’s needs and “parental demandingness,” our tendency to set rules and demand responsible and mature behavior from our child.

Studies show the ideal parenting method for improving a child’s wellbeing in terms of their self-esteem, self-reliance, sense of security and popularity with peers is high responsiveness coupled with high demandingness.

A fine balance

Theories abound as to why we have become the first generation of “helicopter” parents.  None are based on especially scientific evidence.  One theory that resonates is that academic success is perceived by today’s parents as the best means to prepare our children for an uncertain workplace.

This has led to an emphasis on academic skills to the neglect of life skills and produced young adults described by Professor Lythcott-Haims, author of "How to raise an adult" as “overqualified academically, yet underequipped to deal with the day to day practicalities of the world.”

It’s vital our children develop the emotional and practical resources they will need to cope with life’s inevitable setbacks and failures. One of the most comprehensive studies undertaken in the UK to predict what skills our children will need for work identifies resilience and adaptability as the key to individual success. (The future of work: jobs and skills in 2030)

What would be a better way to parent our children?

A secondary school teacher and mother of two, Jessica Lahey, draws on a wealth of experience in her book, “The gift of failure,” to suggest we must foster independence and competence in our children and parent for resilience in the face of mistakes and failures.

Forward thinking schools in the UK have introduced a “failure week.”  Parents and teachers talk to children about how they have failed and what they have learnt from these experiences.  These stories enable children to develop a more authentic understanding of how success really happens. 

If we want to prepare our children for an uncertain world we need to quit the love-bombing and let them fail, successfully.