On a morning not too many years ago, while standing out front opening doors and greeting the grammar children getting out of their cars, I opened the door for a boy who was navigating his book bag and lunchbox through the door of the car while at the same time trying to get a large and elaborately-colored poster through as well while attempting not to damage it. In taking the poster from him so he could get out of his mom’s car safely, I was able to see how much detail and care had been taken to make this poster dynamic.
In the process of transferring possession of his project back to him, I told him, “Nice poster, you put a lot of work into that.” To which he quickly, and honestly replied: “Thank my mom, she did most of it.” I felt a bit perplexed, but not surprised, as I watched him hustle the rest of the way into the front doors of the grammar building to turn in “his” poster to his teacher. The staff who were around me joked a bit about my naiveté in thinking that he had done the work himself, and then one of the ladies, who is a mom in addition to a teacher, said: “I just have to leave the room when my child does a project.” I laughed, but then I thought, “That’s it!” Just the right amount of solitude at the perfect time likely makes for great parenting and healthy children. And not just in making posters, but in this age of over-protection and overindulgences when it comes to raising children, maybe, just maybe, timely prescribed withdrawal is what is needed in multiple areas.
That boy’s mama decided that she was not going to allow her son to mess up; the chance of his failure wasn’t worth the risk to her, so she did his history project for him. Although she probably made an ‘A’ on the poster, she is failing her son by not giving him the opportunity to learn to own his work and to risk failure, even though he might have to sacrifice his gaming or television time in the process of working or because of a poor grade. But that is exactly what our children need: more risk-taking.
In fact, in some ways our current culture of parenting is getting this thing all wrong. In trying to have our children avoid the mistakes, pain, and disappointment in the present, we are doing the very thing that will prevent them from succeeding in the future. By keeping them from ever experiencing failures, we are setting them up for it when they get older.
Failure almost always precedes success.
Dr. Michael Ungar, in his book, Too Safe for Their Own Good: How Risk and Responsibility Help Teenagers Thrive (McClelland & Stewart, 2007), challenges parents to give their kids “risk-taker’s advantage.”
I’d rather a child ride his bicycle on a busy street and learn how to respect traffic before he gets behind the wheel of a car. I’d rather a child do crazy stunts on the monkey bars at age four, and on his BMX bike at the skateboard park at 14 (even if there is a risk of a broken bone) if it means he won’t be doing stupid things with his body when he is 24 (like experimenting with drugs or drinking). I’d rather an 8-year-old choose his own friends and suffer the consequences of being taken advantage of or emotionally hurt while his parents are still there to talk with him about it, rather than waiting until he is an ill-prepared 18-year-old who arrives at a college dorm completely unprepared for the complex relationships he’ll navigate as a new student.
Now, I am not saying that standing up on the car seat next to my mom when she was driving while neither of us wore a seatbelt in 1964 was wise, nor is the fact that I was 30 years old before I ever wore a bicycle helmet while riding a bike. But I am saying that perhaps the notion of protecting our children from harm has gone way too far and is now doing damage of its own.
We know these things, but we often struggle with them in dealing with our own children. Parents must be encouraged to stand strong and realize that sometimes loving children means helping them navigate those times that they are upset, disappointed, and discouraged--with little or no intervention and without caving into their desires, even though it breaks our hearts to see them hurting.
Our job on this earth is not to make our children happy. As a school, it is not to make your children (and the rest of those in their class) happy. If that is our goal, we are going to mess them and this entire process up, and we are all going to be very disappointed and dysfunctional. That is not why we are here.
We need to teach our children how to struggle. How to fight through difficulty. How to fail and then get up and do it again. And while we’re at it, let’s let them do their own school posters!
Emory Latta is Head of School at Providence Christian School in Dothan, Alabama. This article was originally published in his "Friday Focus" and is shared here with permission.