Failure and your kids

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Ingrid Sutton By Jennifer Thomas Ingrid Sutton By Jennifer Thomas

Watching a child fail can make a parent feel helpless, angry, even sad. Most of us want to save our kids from any kind of pain, but that could be detrimental to their development.

Ask Ingrid Sutton. She's a Scottsdale psychologist. 

Before she appeared on "Good Morning! Arizona" we asked her how she felt about the idea of allowing kids to fail.

This was her response:

Think about your life, your own life, not your child’s, not the one you tell your children about to “teach” them all the lessons you learned, but the REAL story.

The aspects that shape who you are now, and what you think you know, and what you believe in deeply. When you reflect on those events that shape YOUR character, the person you are today, I wonder if the story of whom you are in your mind is only a bright and shining account of all that you have accomplished and all the success you have achieved.  

Or, if that story, the REAL story, might at least contain in the accounting of all of your success and achievement, some amount of challenge and hardship that you had to overcome; more importantly,  challenge and hardship that might have been essential to achieving your success on the road to adulthood. 

The concept of challenge and hardship, discomfort and failure, seems to be taboo subject matter for our generation of parenting.

Despite our own stories of struggles, disappointments, losses and failures that are replete with life lessons from our own histories, we seem to be less inclined to allow for our children to experience any of that good, old-fashioned difficulty, that might, heaven forbid, result in failure!

Unfortunately, in our zest to teach those lessons, avert those consequences and catch the drop balls before they hit the floor, we do a grave disservice to our children and to their capacity to grow up feeling that they are responsible, capable, competent and independent human beings, the very task we have devoted ourselves to as parents.

If we're honest with ourselves, most of our life lessons were learned through painful encounters with failure.  As parents, however, we believe it is our job to steer our children towards the path to success. Herein lies the dilemma; should we be in the driver seat, or are we the ones to offer a road map  that allows them to navigate through THEIR life story?  

Watching our children confront disappointment, struggle and fail at something is one of the most challenging aspects of parenting, but it is also one of the most profound teaching moments we have as parents.

It is when we earn our proverbial parenting stripes.

It is not just what we say to them in these moments; it is not the magic words, or elegant language we use to teach them the lessons.

Our children are watching us, ever so closely, to see HOW we respond to their failures, their stumbles and their missteps that teach them the most about what we believe. 

If we step in, and rescue them from the natural consequences of their actions or inaction's, we have taught them that we, their powerful and omnipotent parents, are capable of swooping in and righting those wrongs, fixing what is broken, and solving their problems for them.

In doing so, we undermine their competency and we call into question whether we believe they can really do it for themselves. We lower the bar of expectation when we are trying to raise it.

The concept of learned helplessness is what we perpetuate when we foreclose on the opportunities that failure provides for our children’s growth.  

Instead of viewing your child’s failure as an extension of your own failed parenting, step back and guide your child through the process of analyzing the information they can learn from the predicament they have found themselves in.

Instead of asking, “What am I not doing as a parent?”  Ask, “What is my child doing or not doing that is resulting in failure?” This question opens the window for change and shifts the onus of responsibility to the child. Then, you can begin to engage in a dialog that helps your child begin to understand themselves better, their strengths and their weaknesses.

They can determine if they need to change strategy or approach, or if they need more help. Ultimately, they become capable of assessing their predicament thoughtfully plan a strategy to change subsequent outcomes.

Equally important, they learn to tolerate the discomfort that comes with failure, frustration and disappointment, inevitable conditions of this life. In doing so, our children develop the emotional armor necessary to cope with hardships and challenges and they recognize the need for accountability and personal responsibility, fundamental tasks of development.

When our children our toddlers and preschoolers, we are preoccupied with their arduous efforts towards independence. We are entirely hands-on as they undertake the trial and error approach to the most basic tasks of life: feeding, walking, potty training.

We are acutely attuned to their efforts and their failures helping them to forge these new skills with the zeal and thrill only new parents can possess.  

I remember my son’s preschool teachers words very clearly, “only do for him that which he cannot do for himself.” Sage advice for us all to remember as we tread through the murky waters of parenting when toddler hood is a distant image in the rear view mirror.

As parents our job is still to help our children traverse the road towards independence and autonomy.

Ingrid Sutton is a psychologist based in Scottsdale.

Phone: 602-297-5217