Is it good to let our kids struggle and fail sometimes, to give them 'practice' dealing with difficulties?

(65 Posts)
flow4 Tue 25-Jun-13 14:39:05

I posted the following comment on another thread about happy memories, and then - when HmmmIwonder responded - thought that it might turn into a bit of a hijack.... blush So I'm re-posting it here in case anyone's interested in joining me in this bit of philosophising...

(And what I am about to say does not apply to all kids - not to ones who have been abused or neglected, I'd like to make clear - but it does, I think, apply to many or most...)

I wish I'd let DS1 struggle and even fail more often when he was little.

Our culture is so sold on 'positive parenting', I think, that we focus almost exclusively on making life as pleasant as possible for our DCs, and we forget that they also need to learn to deal with difficulty and unpleasantness. We provide fun and constant entertainment, avoid boredom, support and enable them, encourage and praise, help them achieve, negotiate their friendships and relationships at school, resolve conflicts for them, keep them out of trouble if we can, take them on picnics and holidays, make sure they get plenty of messy play and bouncing and splashing... and try generally to be the very best parents we can be.

But as kids turn into teens and then into adults, they run slap-bang into reality: life is full of difficulties and mummy and daddy can't fix them for you; you need to be able to fix them yourself.

Many teenage problems, it seems to me (and many adult ones, frankly) spring from the fact that our society doesn't give teenagers enough skills to deal with difficulties. Life isn't always rosy, and when they find it isn't perfect, and grown ups can't 'kiss everything better' any more, teenagers often seem to get a bit lost, depressed or angry.

The fact is, as adults, to be happy and functioning and resilient and mentally well, we need to be able to deal with difficulties. We need strategies. We need to know bad feelings pass, and even if we feel absolutely terrible, we will feel better again. We need to know that bad things happen, and that we can sort them out, and that even if we can't, we will survive.

Somehow, my DS - like millions of others, I reckon - reached his teenage years not knowing that he could deal with difficult situations positively. He couldn't deal well with conflict. He associated trying with failure, and hadn't learned that effort brings rewards. He got frustrated easily. He expected me to sort out all his problems.

So... sometimes I think... I wish I'd let him be bored more. I wish I'd let him struggle and strive a bit more. I wish I'd left him to resolve more of his own problems. When he complained, about boredom or fall-outs with friends or most other problems, if I had my time again, I'd tell him "Oh dear, ^what are you going to do about it?^"

I've come to think that kids need to practice these things before they reach their teens, or they can really struggle with the challenges that adolescence and young adulthood bring them.

Because one of the important things I've learned, as a parent of a teen rather than a small child, is that happy memories are lovely, but that making everything lovely for your child does not make them happy.

HmmmIwonder Tue 25-Jun-13 15:28:17

flow4, i found your post really interesting...dd was generally happy till turned 14 last year. up to then she'd had an overall happy life, with no major obstacles to overcome. Then after 3 bereavements last year, her life changed, somehow it was a whole new chapter to deal with. on top of the emotional issues, going into year 10 at school meant dealing with GCSE work, and she has become a different person. she gets very down and at times seems overwhelmed by life in general. Her friendships have suffered, and she feels she has nobody (except me) that she can really talk to. It doesn't seem to matter how many good things are going on in her life, she doesn't really FEEL them and they don't cheer her up. Her self esteem has dwindled. She is doing well at school, parents evening was a round of consistent praise from every teacher, she's getting her grades for the most part but she thinks she's a failure and doesn't know why her targets are so high. There seems to be a complete mismatch between reality (loving family, nice friends, doing well at school) and what's inside her head (lonely, friends dont care about her, high school targets are unrealistic).
For the last year i've been there for her 100% and tried everything i can to 'fix' as much as i can.i've spent countless nights sitting up with her, listening to her and given her nothing but support and love. We arrange stuff as a family that she likes to do, go to places and events that she enjoys (we do too, but a lot of the time , it is led by what she would like). i'm getting to the stage where I'm emotionally exhausted and no matter what we do she is unhappy and hates her life.
Sorry if i seem to have rambled off subject but i suppose what i mean is I wonder if should l leave her to suffer on her own a bit more, in the hope that she will 'fix' herself. Maybe i am loving her too much for her own good. sad

daisysue2 Tue 25-Jun-13 15:55:46

flow4 i think when you say "if I had my time again, I'd tell him "Oh dear, ^what are you going to do about it?^" says it all. But we can't resist solving their problems can we.

flow4 Tue 25-Jun-13 16:16:42

I'm learning to resist, daisysue! grin

I don't know, Hmmm. I'm sure there are a lot of unhappy, depressed and formerly-depressed young people out there who feel their families didn't pay enough attention to their lives, and I don't really know how a parent could tell whether/if they were 'loving too much'...

I do remember sitting in on a university lecture about child and adolescent mental health (a few years ago, in my mid-forties) and having a light-bulb moment, when the lecturer said that mental well-being is not about being happy, but about having strategies to deal with being unhappy.

I suddenly knew that I hadn't realised that myself, so presumably I hadn't (at least before that moment) brought my kids up to understand that either.

I think I put lots of energy into trying to make them happy, and of course, inevitably, failing - not because I'm 'not good enough' (I reckon I probably am!) but because it's impossible! I think my DS1, too, expects to feel happy, and is angry and upset and feels like a failure when he doesn't. I now believe it's wiser and more useful to put energy into helping them to learn ways of dealing with their negative emotions, unhappiness and other difficulties.

MuchBrighterNow Tue 25-Jun-13 16:27:43

I agree with you flow Our desire to protect them from pain gets in the way of them learning how to cope with it on their own.

I think the answer is to find a way in which we can be empathic to their needs, problems etc. without feeling the need to fix things. That is something I struggle with as a mother, I just want to try to make it better.

My ds is so in need of empathy,but the tempatation to try and fix his constant mess ups is enormous. Partly because i don't want to see him in pain but also because i can see the unfolding consequences of his inaction and fear that if I don't pick up the pieces now, further on there will be an even bigger problem. So partly it's a selfish need for calm and a lack of confidence in my Ds.

So I do agree with the concept, but have pretty much failed to act on it with Ds 1. Ds 2 is however much more independant and I think I've cracked it with dd and am often empathic without rushing in to make it better. The first born suffers the consequences of us learning on the job

MuchBrighterNow Tue 25-Jun-13 16:44:36

I was thinking it's a bit like how our over use of antibacteral cleaners/ antibiotics / vaccines etc. mean we never get a chance to toughen up our immune systems so that they are strong enough to defend us without intervention....

< chucks contentious bone into the fray>

I think it stems from the same desire to protect our young and keep them safe from harm which in the long run actually puts them at a disadvantage.

flow4 Tue 25-Jun-13 18:16:57

Two interesting posts, Brighter. I agree with you. And when you say "partly it's a selfish need for calm and a lack of confidence in my Ds", I think you are spot-on... And this lack of confidence perhaps explains why they get so affronted/angry with us. It can become a real vicious circle, because we don't trust them to sort out their own problems, that makes them angry, and their angry responses reinforce our lack of trust... sad

Theas18 Tue 25-Jun-13 18:17:35

I totally agree with learning to fail and pick yourself up and do it again.

(not a stealth but reality) trouble is my 3 thrive on high targets and aceing them. If you set them an " impossible" target , especially DD2 would think about it, and do it anyway.

to DS failure has been traumatic in small ways- not being picked for the A team, not getting through an audition (due to physical issues that he tried to hide) . He did get a bit scrambled and very anxious as a result with " catastrophising "type behaviour ( ie 1 wrong note and it's all a disaster type thinking). However I think he's got over that and that was a great triumph ( more than getting through the audition it's self really). I think it's been really positive for him to use his brain power to get over this hurdle.

School work on " resilience" as part of PHSE which is fantastic. It is a selective school so "failure is not an option" is often the message from parents for whom "my child the doctor/lawyer/dentist" is the only goal in their parental life. Certainly having watched DD1s year through A2 and uni starts where they are coming up against hurdles they find difficult there has been quite a few "traumas" .

If your family view anything other than medicine/dentistry/law as failure though it must be awful... nothing else in your life carries value.

mental well-being is not about being happy, but about having strategies to deal with being unhappy
That really strikes a chord with me. I hold my hands up to being overprotective and over indulgent with my two. Both are wonderful boys who never put a foot wrong. DS2 is chilled and self sufficient but DS1 who is 17 is far from it. He is crushed by any disappointments in life and I have noticed this more rather than less recently. I wonder whether I fixed things too much when he was younger. He has a somewhat obsessive nature and is finding the challenges of being almost an adult quite tricky. sad

Frenchvanilla Tue 25-Jun-13 19:07:03

But he's still developing, surely? And clearly coming up against things he finds challenging and attempting to deal with them, more and more independently but still with the safety cushion of mum and dad, for now.

The challenges smaller children face are, so and so was mean to me, or I can't run as fast as x. Then they gradually get more challenging. As it should be, IMO- the vast majority of us are helping our children to become emotionally mature and independent. Only in a tiny minority of cases do parents get it totally wrong.

And we still grow and develop as we get older! Who doesn't struggle with challenges and failures and frustrations for their whole lives? Unless you are, in fact, Buddha himself.

Small children need to be protected from the rough edges of life. I really, truly believe this.

badguider Tue 25-Jun-13 19:08:34

I think you're absolutely right.

I am only expecting my first so I am sure this will be VERY hard to do with my own child, but I work with young people in a voluntary capacity and I like to see them make mistakes and work out for themselves that they should have done something differently.

I have noticed that other volunteers who are mothers will always tell them the best place to set up their tent, that they haven't enough firewood before they begin etc.. whereas I like to let them learn through experiencing that sleeping on a hill is rubbish as is running out of wood halfway through cooking dinner...

Now I just need to remember to keep that approach with my own child.

Frenchvanilla Tue 25-Jun-13 19:10:12

And how much can you really "fix" it for your kids anyway?

Eg if a child wants to be good at a sport but just isn't- there's literally nothing you can do to change this.

How do you fix everything? I'd love to know.

badguider Tue 25-Jun-13 19:16:57

One example is a girl (of about 12) who refused to take a packed lunch for a day out when we were giving them out as she said she didn't want it.
I tried and tried to persuade her to just take it in her bag anyway and when she refused I eventually left it behind.
At lunchtime, she was hungry and wanted it and expected that I'd have brought it in my bag (like the other adults in her life usually did) but I didn't. She was hungry and had to mooch off her friends... she survived.. and I hope learned a lesson.

BackforGood Tue 25-Jun-13 19:33:31

I do agree that they need to meet things that don't "go right" for them from early on, but I think I must have been a bit of a benign parent, as I think mine have always done so. I am flabbergasted by some of the threads on here about "My pfb dc hasn't been invited to x's party, shall I speak to the Mum?" type of thing, I've always said along the lines of "Well, not everyone can be invited everywhere" then distracted. Same with not being picked for teams or whatever - I've pointed out the things they are good at, and that we all have things we are good at and things we have to work harder at. Mine can all take a bit of "stick" from friends and family when they've been a bit of a plonker, and I think learning to deal with some 'banter' or some friend;y teasing is really important in a developing child. (Once again, am amazed at some of the - to me - 'childish' questions on here about relationships with friends.... she said this so I did that...etc.)

er - not sure where I'm going with this blush

flow4 Tue 25-Jun-13 20:45:19

French - "And how much can you really "fix" it for your kids anyway? Eg if a child wants to be good at a sport but just isn't - there's literally nothing you can do to change this. How do you fix everything? I'd love to know." - I think in this kind of situation, as parents we often try to 'fix' things emotionally for our children by minimising and soothing any sense of inadequacy, by saying things like "Ah well, who cares about silly old football?! Sport doesn't matter anyway. Cleverness/music is much more important, isn't it darling?"

The message is "You don't need to be upset or feel inadequate; this is not important", rather than "Of course you feel upset, let's work out how you are going to deal with it". I think we try to protect kids' feelings, but instead perhaps encourage them to dismiss or bury their hurt and upset.

I think perhaps your question connects with BFG's point... I certainly do this kind of 'distracting' and dismissing disappointments. But is it better to say things like "Well, not everyone can be invited everywhere", or to acknowledge their upset and/or anger and help them deal with these difficult feelings? Of course you can do both...

And French - "Small children need to be protected from the rough edges of life. I really, truly believe this." - I don't disagree, in principle. But there are a couple of practical problems. Firstly, how small is small? Do you protect them up to 2 or 3? Or 5? Or 7 or 8? Or 11? Or what...? But secondly, and far more importantly, it's impossible. You simply can't guarantee to protect small children from life's 'rough edges'. Life is full of unexpected, difficult things - the hamster dies, or grandma does, or mum. sad I believe it's better to help even very small children to get 'practice' with small upsets and unhappiness, and that practice helps them deal better with the big ones, when they come along...

I don't know where I'm going with this either! It sounds like I'm being terribly angst-y and guilt-ridden here, and I'm really not. (Guilt sticks people like rabbits in headlights and dis-empowers them; at best, it's a useless emotion, and I try to avoid it!) I'm just pondering... grin

HmmmIwonder Fri 28-Jun-13 09:21:57

After reading these I've tried to step back from dd a bit. i find myself doing so much 'mothering' that it comes as second nature and i dont even notice half of it: have you got enough money for going out? will you be warm enough in that jacket? are you washing your hair tonight? are you revising on Sunday? Etc etc etc. I'm trying to stop doing these little things as a step towards backing off from the bigger stuff. It's very hard though!
What's even harder is the sadness. If she's sad and upset at bedtime can i really walk out and leave her upset, in the hope that she'll get over it on her own??

badguider Fri 28-Jun-13 09:54:53

I think it's perfectly fine to offer comfort and support if she's sad... just not solutions.

Ah badguider it's so much easier to know what to do with other people's kids. I don't mean that as a criticism by the way. I can be much more hands off and tough with other DCs. When mine were little I knew exactly what they would or wouldn't be allowed to do when they were older. hmm All over these boards there are oceans of sensible solutions for parenting problems. We should take our own advice more often.

When I said I had a tendency to fix things I meant that I would try to give DS techniques for dealing with social situations which has always been tricky for him. If he lost at sports day or was not invited to a party I would feel his pain but not show it, instead I would brush it off.
The trouble is it doesn't get any easier. Life is not fair. I've been saying that to him for years but he is still floored by disappointments or failures.

badguider Fri 28-Jun-13 11:29:23

Oh I know it's easier with other people's children (as I said) but when you see the consequences every day of children entering their teens unable to cope without mummy fixing everything it acts as a reminder to check your own parenting of younger children... our role is to enable our children to function as healthy independent adults one day... and that's the hardest thing imo.

KatyMac Fri 28-Jun-13 11:49:25

DD is travelling to London regularly now; I used to get phone calls 'I'm lost' to which I helped but didn't fix.

Last week I got a call 'Northern line is down, which is the next closest station to where I want to go' I googled found and and started to explain how to get there - DD said 'hang on mum I have the name of the station & I have a map, I can work it out; I'll ring you when I get there' & she did

I was really proud as although I 'helped', I didn't 'fix' & without be she said she would have bought a map or asked to borrow one or asked a man at the tube station.

But it hard balancing between 'help' & 'fix' & 'organise everything to within an inch of her life'

It's a never ending learning curve.
I had never even held a baby before my first was born. True. Every stage of parenting has been new to me, I have never worked with children so no outside experience to draw from. MN didn't exist when mine were babies but now they are teens it's a godsend.
This last year I have made a concious effort to enable him to spread his wings. He hasn't always liked it but he has learned a lot. This week he's made a 5 hour journey alone involving trains tubes and buses. I suppose I might be accused of helping too much because I bought the tickets and told him exactly what the journey plan was, but he couldn't have done it a few months ago.

cory Fri 28-Jun-13 12:02:12

I think failing sometimes is a great learning experience.

Failing always is a learning experience in its own way, but the lesson it teaches is not a good one: that way you learn that there is no way you can succeed.

As almost always in life, it's about the balance.

iclaudius Fri 28-Jun-13 12:06:42

My dd claims I should have let her fail her gcses rather than pushing her to do well and then leaving her to her own devices at AS which she failed in spectacular fashion....

Hmmm

I do agree with you though op

kittenmittens Fri 28-Jun-13 12:16:25

My dad taught me how to play chess when I was a child. He beat me every single time and after a while I just got sick of losing and never really played it again. I always thought that was really mean of him and he should have let me win occasionally. I brought it up recently and he defended himself, saying that to have let me win would have been silly because I'd never have learned. He was never so obstinate about anything else, he wasn't like this big competitive dad, just with chess.

I can really see his point now and I agree in principle, I think people need to be challenged. But the fact that I haven't had a game of chess since I was a child shows that the tactic pretty much backfired. I guess I just wasn't cut out to be a grand master.

cory Fri 28-Jun-13 12:24:16

Sometimes I wish my mum had suggested solutions and not distractions though iyswim.

She was not the kind of parent who would ever have rushed into school and sorted things out; that was very far from her style. But was perhaps a little inclined to consolation of the type "well, who cares about that silly subject/party/game anyway". In retrospect, a more helpful approach would have been "I see you do care about having failed/not having been picked- what do you think you could do about it?"

I am not a great sorter-out, either. But I do try to suggest to dd that often things can be sorted, and I might even offer a couple of suggestions to try.

A bit like having your own personal Mumsnet, in fact: I don't really expect AnyFucker to turn up on my doorstep and sort the nasty people out, but sometimes a helpful suggestion/YABU can just help you to gain a perspective.

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