How to give your kids the gift of failure
Overprotective parenting only harms children later in life, according to the authors of two new books
It's a daily occurrence. I ask my kids to do something. They resolutely ignore me or tell me they'll do it later. I give in and do the task for them. But parenting experts are warning that by doing everything for our children - from shuttling forgotten lunches to school to rushing breathlessly after them with left-behind raincoats - we are doing them no favours.
Two new books suggest that the modern phenomenon of 'helicopter' parenting is not only hindering our children, it's actually harmful to their future selves. The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey and How to Raise an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims prod at the heart of these everyday parenting dilemmas.
As you read Lahey's book, it seems that parents, driven by a fear of failure, are running around all day making sure their kids don't get hurt, doing their homework and taking the football coach to task if he's too hard on their little angel.
But Lahey's thesis is that when parents try to engineer failure out of kids' lives, children feel incompetent, incapable, unworthy of trust and utterly dependent. They are, she argues, unprepared when "failures that happen out there, in the real world, carry far higher stakes".
Lythcott-Haims, a former Dean at Stanford University, details the over-involvement of parents in their children's lives, something that actually stops them from growing up. In her TED Talk, which has been viewed over two million times, she argues that parents today are acting like their children's secretaries and concierges, nagging them to ensure they achieve a level of perfection that they themselves never achieved.
She talks about how parents, wanting their child to "achieve", leave no time for free play because every after-school activity is a make-or-break moment in the future parents have in mind for their children.
Are we all guilty of doing exactly what she says - hovering, picking up the pieces and over-scheduling our children's lives? Is it better to leave time with absolutely nothing to do and if they forget something in school, on their head be it?
Dozens of books and articles warn that today's overprotective, parenting has undermined the independence and academic potential of an entire generation.
The dictionary now even has a term for this: Generation Snowflake, defined as "the people who became adults in the 2010s, viewed as being less resilient and more prone to taking offence than previous generations".
British sociologist and author Professor Frank Furedi has written widely on the subject, and argued: "I think the fault lies with the way we socialise young people - the way we parent and the way kids are schooled. When they start working they are often less able to cope with the challenges of the real world than previous generations - but, of course, it is not their fault.
"The infantilisation of young people is the unintended outcome of parenting practices that rely on levels of support and supervision that are more suitable for much younger children. The relations of dependence that are nurtured through these practices serve to prolong adolescence to the point that many young people in their 20s do not perceive themselves as adults. Whereas in the past infantilisation was classically associated with the phenomenon of maternal overprotection, today the prolongation of adolescence is culturally sanctioned."
CEO of Parentline Rita O'Reilly says parents are so anxious about making sure their children do well that they fill every available hour with activities for their child without leaving room for downtime.
"When you ask a parent how their child is they never say he or she is happy, it's always 'on Monday she's got ballet, on Tuesday it's piano and on Wednesday it's football'. Parents judge the child and judge themselves on how much they get their kids to do," says Rita.
She believes that being over-involved has seeped into parenting so much that kids don't know how to relax anymore. "They need time to do nothing... If they have to go into school with something not done, maybe we're doing them a favour," she says.
Mum of five Taryn de Vere, who lives in Co Donegal, believes there's an over-emphasis on academic success that feeds into modern parenting.
Mum to Fionn (16), Bella (14), Oscar (11), Tilly (8) and five-year-old Remi, Taryn, who works as a parenting adviser, says her end goal is to ensure her children are happy and that they are respectful of themselves and of the other people in their lives.
"If you're happy, that doesn't mean you have to have a college degree. There's just too much pressure on kids. You can set up a lot of expectations around things and this can make your children shut off from you. If they think their mum or dad expect them to get high scores, they will be less likely to open up to their parents.
"I share custody of my kids with their dad. Because they're with me four days a week I make sure we do as little as possible. I find that because they are going between two houses, they're happy to just hang out. The thought of driving around dropping them off here and there would drive me batty. If I think back to my childhood, I remember going camping and the holidays in the caravan. They were not fancy but it was time spent with family," says Taryn.
Parenting expert Allen O'Donoghue, who runs helpme2parent.ie, says our natural instinct is to protect our children and sometimes we can overdo it because, like the rest of us, children learn through making mistakes.
He urges parents to take the pressure off themselves. "That's something I say to parents; 'right now you are doing the best you can with the knowledge you have'. Let children do things for themselves. When they're toddlers and they're learning to walk and they fall, we pick them up. When they can't button their clothes or tie their shoelaces, we do it. But we don't need to keep doing it. They need to do things for themselves and fail in order to learn that life can be hard but they have the skills to get back up," says Allen.
"As parents we need to give them as much exposure to being able to build their sense of resilience - that doesn't mean we don't help them. we just don't take over. We also have to allow them to have down time. If parents find everyone is totally wiped out from doing too much, it's okay, reassess. You're not scarring your child for life - just change things. Kids are more adaptable than we are."