The college admissions scandal may seem like an extreme case that only pertains to wealthy elites with the means to bribe people to get their children into top universities. But it touches on the pressured feelings almost all parents and students feel today. It also highlights the way many parents are cheating their kids out of an important life lesson: how to fail and bounce back.
The concept of “helicopter parents” who hover over all aspects of their kids’ lives has been around for a while, but over the past year, there have been more headlines about “lawn mower parents,” who mow down every obstacle or difficulty their children may have to face. Lawn mower parents are also known as “snow plow parents” (and even “curling parents” in countries like Denmark and the Netherlands).
It’s natural for parents to want to protect their children from disappointment, but doing so can ultimately lower their self-esteem and set them up for more difficulty in the future. HuffPost spoke to educators and child development experts about the importance of teaching kids about failure and resilience.
The Importance Of Failure
“Parents who give permission for kids to fail are building social and emotional skills and qualities that last a lifetime ― persistence, positive self-image, self-confidence, self-control, problem-solving, self-sufficiency, focus and patience,” Kim Metcalfe, a retired professor of early childhood education and psychology and author of Let’s Build ExtraOrdinary Youth Together, told HuffPost.
But allowing your child to fail almost seems to go against nature, noted Jessica Lahey, a teacher, journalist and author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.
She said that parents feel bombarded by frightening headlines along the lines of “it’s impossible to get into college today” or “the next generation of kids is unlikely to do better economically than their parents.”
“When faced with those sorts of scary scenarios, we tend to go into ‘protective parent mode,’ which is evolutionarily rational,” Lahey explained. “But we’re reacting to things that aren’t actually threats. It’s not a threat that our child can’t get into Harvard. It’s not a threat that our kid is not the top-scoring player on the soccer team. It’s something that’s beneficial for them to have to experience.”
“Failure is part of life, and if our children don’t have the opportunity to fail or make mistakes, they’ll never realize they can bounce back. That’s what resilience is all about.”
– Michele Borba
Because parents have the instinct to protect their children from failure and disappointment, it’s necessary to take a step back and understand what real threats are versus what’s actually just part of growing up.
“Failure is part of life, and if our children don’t have the opportunity to fail or make mistakes, they’ll never realize they can bounce back. That’s what resilience is all about,” said Michele Borba, an educational psychologist and author of UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. “Your child doesn’t learn to bounce back because you told them they could but because they experienced it. Then when the problems get really huge, they’ve got that gumption inside to realize, ‘Hey I can do this!’”
The Problem With Lawn Mowers
“We can’t plow everything out of the way,” said Lahey. “If this college admissions case is any example, they’ve just set their kids up for failure. Lori Loughlin’s daughter, the Instagram influencer, has become a laughingstock, and now her life is open to scrutiny in a way it wasn’t before.”
Parents who bribe their kids into colleges they’re not equipped to attend are not solving any problems, but rather creating a situation in which their kids will struggle, she continued. This will ultimately erode their sense of competence and self-esteem.
One of the best ways to help a child build his or her sense of self-esteem is to separate your own self-worth as a parent from your children’s accomplishments.
Like everyone, parents tend to look for concrete indicators of success and progress. But because there are no parenting report cards or performance evaluations, they simply look to their kids’ achievements and co-opt them.
Lahey noted that this is part of what psychology professor Wendy Grolnick calls the “Pressured Parent Phenomenon.”
“Parents think, ‘My child made the traveling soccer team, so that means I get an A for my parenting,’ or ‘They won the science fair. That means I’m an A+ parent,’” Lahey explained, noting that this feeds into the temptation to mow down any obstacles or challenges kids may face and deprive them of the opportunity to fail.
Obviously no one wants to watch their children fail, but they need to in order to learn to react to failure in a positive and constructive way.
“The most effective teaching tools we have require kids to get frustrated and work through it to the other side,” Lahey said, pointing to the concept of “desirable difficulties” ― educational tasks that require a considerable but ultimately desirable amount of effort in order to enhance long-term learning.
“To benefit from desirable difficulties, kids have to be able to get frustrated, redirect themselves, take a breath, reread the instructions and stick with it long enough that they can overcome that frustration and actually feel that sense of competence when they actually work it out,” she noted.
Lahey encouraged moms and dads to parent from a place of trust and focus on “autonomy supportive parenting” (giving kids more control over the details of a task and allowing them to get frustrated and work through it) rather than “directive parenting” (laying out exactly how to do things and making them follow through).
“Parents think, ‘My child made the traveling soccer team, so that means I get an A for my parenting,’ or ‘They won the science fair. That means I’m an A+ parent.’”
– Jessica Lahey
“We as parents are really good at trying to make our kids feel confident. But confidence is like this empty optimism,” said Lahey. “Competence ― when kids actually push through, figure something out, try something, screw it up, do it again, and get to a place where they really achieve something ― that’s where real self-esteem lies, not in someone telling you you’re smart over and over again.”
How To Teach Failure And Resilience Every Day
Parents can incorporate lessons of failure and resilience for their kids in their everyday lives. For instance, Lahey recommends showing young children how to load the dishwasher and then asking them to do it. Inevitably, they will do something wrong, but it’s a learning opportunity.
“If there’s still egg stuck to one of the plates, you can show it to them and say, ‘Look, because this wasn’t rinsed off, it’s all stuck on there. So let’s work together to get this off, and next time you’ll remember that this sticky yucky egg may still be stuck on there if you don’t rinse first,’” she explained.
When she goes to the airport with her own children, Lahey sometimes budgets extra time so that when they arrive she can turn to them and ask, “OK, where do we go? What do we do first?” That way when they eventually do travel alone, they will feel comfortable navigating an airport.
Lahey acknowledged that these types of experiences often require additional time and planning, but it’s worth it. “Giving them age-appropriate tasks that are fairly low stakes helps them get to a place where when things get to be higher stakes, they’ve got it,” she said.
Growing up, Lahey’s son loved a local chocolate shop and asked if they could go there one day. She pulled up to the store, handed him a $5 bill and told him to “go for it!” He refused because he didn’t want to go in by himself, so they left. They repeated this exercise many times over the course of a year until finally one day, he decided he could go in by himself.
“That was a turning point for him about being afraid to talk to people in stores,” she recalled. “Now it’s no problem for him, and that was a low-risk, child-friendly way for him to overcome something that really freaked him out.”
Lahey also recommends having older kids fill out their own school forms and call to schedule their own doctors’ appointments. “These are things that feel like stupid busy work to us, but they’re actually great moments of accomplishment for kids,” she said.
Books also provide a great opportunity to teach failure and resilience. Borba is a fan of Fortunately by Remy Charlip, a children’s book about a boy named Ned who finds himself in some tough situations.
“Every time he has an ‘unfortunate,’ he turns it into a ‘fortunate,’” she explained. “Every page is about how to flip the unfortunate into a fortunate, so kids see that everybody has unfortunates.”
The Power Of Brainstorming
Borba recommends making brainstorming part of kids’ day-to-day experience to help them practice coming up with solutions to problems.
“When your child makes a mistake, don’t berate the child for the mistake but make it into a question of ‘What are you going to learn from it?’ ‘What’s one way you could do that differently?’ or ‘OK, let’s figure out what to do next,’” Borba noted. “If they realize that inside their brains are opportunities to keep thinking of a different option, then they’re less likely to make the mistake again.”
She pointed to what she calls the “pocket problem-solver” method ― using your hand as a brainstorming tool. For your thumb, ask what the problem is. Then name three things you could have done differently for your pointer, middle and ring fingers. Then your pinkie is what you’re going to do next time.
“When your child makes a mistake, don’t berate the child for the mistake but make it into a question of ‘What are you going to learn from it?’ ‘What’s one way you could do that differently?’”
– Michele Borba
For older kids and teens, parents can respond to mistakes and failures by saying, “It’s OK, we can do it again. Let’s figure out another option.”
Borba believes they should own up to their mistakes and be involved in the process of figuring out other options or solutions: “Let’s say your teen is failing a class. Ask, ‘What do you want to do? How about setting up a conference with the teacher? How about getting a tutor?’ Involve them in the ‘how abouts.’”
With older kids and teens, Borba also recommended using news stories as a jumping off point for conversations. The college admissions scandal is actually a good example.
“Ask your teen, ‘Have you heard about what these parents did? How would you feel if I did something like that?’ It’s great to get their reaction,” she said. “Often the real news stories, especially if they involve teens, are a way in, and if your kid isn’t opening up, ask, ‘What do your friends think? What are other people saying about it?’ It’s powerful.”
Kids Need To See Their Parents Struggle
Sharing stories of past failures and how you moved on can be beneficial for your children, but what’s even more helpful is keeping your kids in the loop as you face adversity in the present.
“Sharing current failures allows parents to share the entire thinking and behavioral processes they engage in, which models persistence but more importantly delivers the message that no matter how old we are, we fail, we persist and we learn,” Metcalfe said. Consistently modeling resilience can help kids develop a glass-half-full attitude.
There are age-appropriate ways to be open about failure and make it clear that mistakes are acceptable in your household. Borba noted that parents don’t necessarily have to admit all their biggest failures to their young children (“Oh no, I’ve just gone completely bankrupt! What do I do?”), but it’s OK to openly say, “Oh gosh, I just messed this project up.”
“The wonderful thing is adding ‘but next time I’ll ….’” Borba explained. “For instance say, ‘Wow, I just completely blew the time frame. I thought I’d be able to get out the door on time, and now I’m so late. But next time I’ll set my alarm earlier!’”
In Lahey’s house, they lay out three things they’d each like to accomplish over the next three months, and one has to be “a bit scary.” Her goals have included submitting work to new publications, taking guitar lessons for the first time and even studying Algebra I in her 40s to get over her “math-phobia.”
She believes it’s a powerful learning opportunity for kids to see their parents try new things that are scary and could lead to mistakes and know that it’s OK.
“My kids watched me do it, screw it up and try again,” she said. “That’s the most effective thing we can give them, yet we seem to hide it because we want them to think we’re perfect or something ― which, as many already know, we’re not.”
Ultimately, fostering a growth and resilience mindset in your child is something that takes time and effort. “Realize that a one-time talk isn’t going to change him or her,” Borba said.
Still, these are lessons worth teaching, so keep encouraging your child to try, make mistakes and see failures as a learning opportunity. With time, you’ll raise a human who’s comfortable facing adversity and able to overcome challenges. This is what every parent fundamentally wants ― not a Yale acceptance letter.