Saturday, October 13, 2007

Letting children fail

The very funny pilot of ABC’s new dramedy “Dirty Sexy Money” was chock full of storylines to be but had a single triumphal moment: the pink suitcase parade of the patriarch’s younger daughter as she defiantly set off on her own. She was depressed by the knowledge that her father had bought her yet one more illusory success, and she believed she could not have a life unless her successes and failures were her own.

Early into the second episode of the season, we learned that she aspires to a freedom she doesn’t really understand. As her avowedly self-indulgent twin reminded her, she may have run away from home, but she was living in an expensive hotel suite financed by her father.

How does a successful parent help his or her children not only aspire to successful independence, but also to understand what that means?

In our last post we talked about helping children identify and develop the skills they will need to success. The program we suggested was hardly simple, but it lacked one crucial element: creating the opportunity for each child to succeed also means allowing each child to fail.

Let’s clarify a little: We are not suggesting that failure is inherently good. Successes –particularly successes that are acknowledged and applauded – are necessary for the development of self-confidence and independence.

But children who come from successful families often think success is a given, and are like the small child who hears the word “hot” and thinks it means ‘hot like a summer day when you can go swimming.’ Not until she puts her finger on the stove and discovers the real pain of that kind of heat does she understand that “hot” is something different from a general atmosphere.

Worse, children who grow up in very successful families may not understand that the way they behave has real impact on the people and world around them. If they are treated by others simply because of who they are, they learn very little about the effect they can have, and how manage their relationships to achieve positive results.

But perhaps most importantly, since we all do fail at something eventually, none of us can really develop self confidence until we have also experienced a failure and both survived and recovered from it. Choices made to avoid failure are very different from choices made to achieve success – and very few of us learn to do the latter until we have proven to ourselves that we can, indeed, ‘pick ourselves up, wipe ourselves off, and start all over again.’

The failures don’t have to be big or dire. But they do have to be real.

We have one client who gave each of his children an annual sum to pay for their college years. When one son ran out of money before paying his third quarter tuition, he had to get a job and make weekly payments on the market-rate loan his father offered as an alternative to dropping out. He paid off the outstanding loan when he got the next year’s allowance, and developed a budget that ensured he could pay all of the year’s expenses. This son had a much different relationship with money from then on and, interestingly, so did his brothers.

To have impact, not all failures have to happen. But they have to be really possible – and to matter to the child.

Another client was most concerned that her children learn about the effort that goes into achievement and the relationship between accomplishment and rewards. Her youngest child was a good but lazy swimmer, preferring to play in the pool to actual swimming. The child also wanted to go on a special outing with her scout troop at the end of the summer. Our client promised her daughter that she could go on the outing if she had been able to swim an entire mile by the end of the first session of her swimming camp. The child was a determined little girl and by the end of the camp session had not only completed the mile but was invited to join the swim team. She never became a star athlete, but she did go on her coveted outing, and she always remembered that she had earned her place on the camp’s team.

No parent can make any child succeed. At best, parents’ efforts, money, reputation can help. At worst, though, those same things can deprive the child of any real desire or drive. By allowing the child both to savor the rewards of achievement and to experience and survive failure, a parent can help a child to learn to move through the world with confidence and independence.

No comments: