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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.

bigTillyMint Fri 28-Jun-13 13:05:45

"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." and "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."

So agree with this.

cory Fri 28-Jun-13 13:22:59

All these golden childhoods with no experience of failure seem very far from dd's life. sad

I am not sure that her early experience of pain and disability and failure has always made her a stronger, more confident person though. Tbh I am not sure suffering does that.

BackforGood Fri 28-Jun-13 16:15:09

I guess we all have different places where we draw the line of letting them 'get what they will get on their own' and helping. There's a long thread running at the moment about how a 16yr old dd chose not to go to her prom, then, at the last minute, (as in, on the day) decided she would, and the lengths both her Mum and Dad went to to make it a perfect situation for her. I'm honestly amazed how few people think it was fine that the Mum had secretly bought her a ticket anyway on the off chance she'd change her mind, and then the lengths both parents went to with the preparations on the day - I'm in a small minority on that thread! The Mum then goes on to say she's booked her something else that the dd said she doesn't want to go to. I don't understand why you wouldn't have the conversations with your dc at the time they said they didn't want to go, pointing out how much of a chance it was, etc.etc, but, if they won't be persuaded at the time, then let them feel a bit sad if they do change their minds on the day, but let them learn the lesson.

cory Fri 28-Jun-13 17:34:15

I just read that thread, BFG, and found it fascinating. As the mother of a child with anxiety issues I am used to having all manners of psychologists and therapists telling me that I am must be over-protective and helicoptering (because we all know that any issues in children are caused by their mothers), but it genuinely hadn't occurred to me to sort out the details around dd's prom: she does that.

I did pay for the ticket and contributed towards the dress, but it genuinely didn't occur to me that I should be running around organising things when there is an almost adult young woman in the house who is much better placed to do that.

As for booking a camp experience that the dd had specifically told her she didn't want to go to- that seemed bizarre to me. This girl is soon going to be applying to university- what's the mother going to do then, if she is so convinced she knows better than the girl what she wants: write her UCAS forms for her?

badguider Fri 28-Jun-13 17:48:36

The prom thread freaked me out too - i'd have said 'well, if you can get a ticket at this point i'll give you the money' and 'you can borrow a dress of mine or wear something you've got already...'

just maybe there would be really quick dress shopping if it could be fitted inbetween school and the dance but that is it. No running around organising anything else that's for sure.

Some people are going to think i'm the meanest parent ever when my ds is older...

flow4 Fri 28-Jun-13 18:15:40

cory, I'm concerned I've made you a bit sad, and I absolutely don't want to do that... sad

You say "I am not sure that her early experience of pain and disability and failure has always made her a stronger, more confident person though. Tbh I am not sure suffering does that" ... I agree. Like you say, I think it's about balance. I don't think suffering is good for children at all; and I agree that repeated failure is not good either.

But what I do think is good for children - or at least it would have been very good for my own son much earlier on in his life - was experience of trying, or 'feeling the fear and doing it anyway'.

I was (I think, with the 20:20 vision of hindsight hmm ) too concerned to protect him from failure and other sorts of 'emotional nastiness', so I 'fixed' things... And he he didn't learn until really very recently that it wouldn't kill him if he didn't succeed. I actually think he believed deep-down that he would never recover from failure, so he stopped trying/making an effort pretty much altogether. And that meant he also never learned the pleasures/rewards of trying and succeeding.

That's really different from a child suffering, constantly struggling and trying but finding she can't do things. That would really knock a child's confidence, I imagine, even if she was quite an amazingly strong person.

I suppose what I'm trying to say is that I think it's good for kids to learn to achieve things through their own efforts - and that by trying to 'make things perfect' for our kids, some of us kind of deprive them of the practice they need at trying. Kids who have trying/effort 'built in' to their lives through disability or other circumstances don't need that 'practice', because they already get it. But kids who have it generally 'easy' need to learn to deal with difficulties, and if they don't before their teenage years, I think they (and we!) can find those years quite challenging.

secretscwirrels Fri 28-Jun-13 18:30:11

Well put Flow.
Oh if only we could do all our parenting with the benefit of hindsight.

cory Fri 28-Jun-13 18:52:10

Very well put, Flow, and don't worry, you didn't make me sad. Or at least, it's a mixed sadness: I wish dd's confidence hadn't been knocked so badly, but sometimes I do see that there is a strength in it too. If she survives, if she doesn't take the desperate way out, then I think maybe one day she will be a better and stronger adult for her experience.

But then it seems to me from your other threads that one day your ds may also be a better and stronger adult from what he has been through (and sadly, what he has put you through).

Theas18 Fri 28-Jun-13 19:53:50

Newcastle uni open day. Interestingly clear they WILL expect evidence of resillence to come up at interview. I did wonder how a lot of the kids in the room, who should be at least academically , the one who always succeed (they wouldn't be there if they didn't ) would discuss/evidence this.

ivykaty44 Fri 28-Jun-13 20:03:57

It is good to be allowed to fail in a secure environment as failure helps teens learn for themselves.

We went to a day event fro dd's sport and she forgot an item that was important, she couldn't borrow one and she had to work without the item all day. dd was gutted that she had forgotten it. Through the day the organisers/coaches teased her about this.

When we got home dd made a list of items she needs to take with her to such an event, she laminated it and now uses that list to pack her bags.

I know that a lot of parents pack their teens bags and make their lunch, which is fine but the teens will not learn to be self sufficient if they are not allowed to do stuff for themselves and fail at it and then work out how to put things right.

amumthatcares Fri 28-Jun-13 20:09:11

I was one of 4 DC and being the only DD pretty much did the lions share of household chores. As DM worked full time, I was cooking dinner for 6 at an early age, had a saturday job at 13 and stood every Sunday afternoon ironing for 6 people! (a job I now absolutely detest!). Our family was run on a very tight budget and so there was no spare money for treats. We were fed, watered, clothed and kept warm and comfortable. I cannot really recall happy/amazing childhood memories and don't remember hugs and the feeling of much love sad When I was at school leaving age I would have liked to have gone on to further education but was told by DF 'get yourself a job, I've kept you for 16 years and now it's time for you to pay us a bit back' Despite this I am always the one that is there now to help my parents when they need it.

I was adamant that my DD (18 - and an only DC) would not have my kind of childhood but would have lot's of hugs and feel well and truly loved and thanks also to my DH's amazing parents, she has. I have felt her pain when she has been hurt, felt her disappointment when things have not worked out for her and have helped her as much as I can when she has needed it. That said, she is not a spoiled only child by any stretch of the imagination, which is quite an achievement considering! She is clever, sensible, compasionate, hard working, well mannered and loving grin. I guess I got lucky and haven't had to impose the 'tough love' line.

secretscwirrels Fri 28-Jun-13 21:01:09

amumthatcares I think some of my parenting stems from the emotional neglect I was brought up with. My mother was always either at work or out. She went out somewhere every night (churchy stuff, drama clubs etc). I was left to my own devices as long as did did all the cleaning and cooking. I don't ever remember them getting involved in anything I did. They wouldn't know whether I had school work or exams. I made bad decisions and choices ... because I could. I left school at 16, they didn't seem to mind. I don't ever remember having fun with my family.

I think my DCs feel loved and supported and cherish family life. I hope I haven't gone too far the other way.

youarewinning Fri 28-Jun-13 21:11:55

Wow, interesting post and food for thought. I'm struggling atm to help my DS as he cannot take my advice and put it into practice even when I offer it. He has supected AS. I'm certainly going to try the "what are you going to do about it?" line. Maybe if the initial ideas are his, once I've helped him them refine them to socially acceptable! he may find it easier to put them into practice. The thinking I already have is he' going to grow up into an adult so will need these skills despite the fact they are hard and confusing for him.
Watching this thread with interest.

Chottie Fri 28-Jun-13 21:23:41

I have found this thread really interesting. I am in my 50s and my children are in their 30s, so my parenting experience is obviously different.

I tried to teach my 'children' to be resilient, to be resourceful, if they forgot their gym kit, instrument etc. I would never take it in to school for them. It was their responsibility and only forgotten a couple of times.

I used to say to my children when you find a boulder in your path, do you see it as an obstacle or a stepping stone to something else? and tell them there is always another path.

One thing that has surprised me on MN is the number of parents taking their DC to and staying to attend Uni Open Days. My children did their own research and went off by train or coach with their school friends. It was not that I did not care and this approach was not unusual.

Theas18 Fri 28-Jun-13 21:41:24

chottie I totally agree! I'm only here with ds because I think to send a 17 yr old on a trek that involves 2 nights away from home would be a tad mean and possibly neglectful. he's done the others I his own.

( and actually it's lovely spending time one to one with my nearly grown up boy, opportunities are scarce fro that)

Chottie Fri 28-Jun-13 21:49:20

thanks Theas18 I thought I might get flamed.

I love spending time with my grown up DS too, he is such good company and I love hearing all about his life. I hope your DS finds the right uni and course and all goes well for him smile

cory Fri 28-Jun-13 22:12:04

That is so sad, amumthatcares. flowers

But if your parents had been different, it would have been possible to combine the tight budget and the need to help out with hugs and appreciation. Hugs and love don't cost anything and they don't have to get in the way of children learning to find their own solutions.

ivykaty44 Fri 28-Jun-13 22:17:29

if they forgot their gym kit, instrument etc. I would never take it in to school for them.

This I agree with wholeheartedly - but schools in my experiance don't seem to agree with and I have been telephoned and asked if I can take this and that in as it has not been remembered by dd - no I am at work and can't but...if i was at home would I feel the pressure from school to do so and then allow my dc to not have to remember as they on't need to?

southeastastra Fri 28-Jun-13 22:25:27

'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....

kids need to learn this way before the teenage years, imo parents cosset their children from such a young and protect them from the real world until it it too late, they need to 'let go' from a younger age.

on the other hand some kids are so streetwise at the age of 5 it's frightening. we need to strike a middle somewhere and look out for these vulunerable children.

to me the middle classes are so set on making their own kids succeed they forget that their kids will eventually have to meet others in the real world

(sorry am waffling i know!)

amumthatcares Fri 28-Jun-13 23:06:17

secrets, 'emotional neglect' - yes, that's what it was. My parents wouldn't know about lessons, exams, etc. either. Can't remember them going to a parents evening or a sports day. From as far back as I can remember I did everything for myself (and my siblings too). I am sure, as you say, this has made me into the mum I am.

I am the mum that has taken stuff to school if she forgot it so she didn't get in trouble, try to get her to the prom so she didn't miss out (though not in advance if she'd said she didn't want to go), fought an appeal to get her into the secondary school all her (15) friends had gotten into and she hadn't. I suppose although we didn't spoil her materially, I have possibly shielded & protected her more to make up for the lack I felt in my childhood.

ivykaty44 Fri 28-Jun-13 23:35:34

There is a reason that uni have a tour for the students and a segregated tour for the parents that come along on open days - they want the students to get a look around with out the parents.

Happymum22 Fri 28-Jun-13 23:45:12

DC all had their chance to do things wrong without me picking up the pieces. I was there to support them, but they had to think for themselves or take the 'failure'. This was relative though, for things like forgetting PE kit, forgetting homework, getting into sticky situations with friends or messing up arrangements/double booking themselves as teenagers.

They had their fair share of harder struggles due to family trauma while they were children, and all, sadly, learnt at an early age things in life don't go smoothly and you just have to pick up the pieces as best you can.

DD had a car crash, a very small one, it was one of the first times she went out alone after passing- before she went I always debated going with her but knew I had to let go of her- (inside I was terrified and wanted to ban her from driving ever again) but on the outside I remained calm, told her I knew it was an accident and she would learn from it and she mustn't let her knock her confidence.

All these times, when I have supported as necessary but not prevented failure if it is, in the end, all down to them. Or worse, as some parents do, not allowed even the chance of failure to be possible.

DC have all grown up into resilient young people who are very good at dealing with failure or when things go wrong so I hope I got the balance right when they were younger smile

Chottie Sat 29-Jun-13 06:33:15

ivykate44 I've just read your comment about schools telephoning parents and asking them to bring in missing gym kit etc.

Goodness, things have certainly changed! for my children the consequences were not being able to take part, looking foolish in front of their friends and having to do something extremely boring instead. They would have been embarrassed if their mother had turned up at school with missing equipment.

Chottie Sat 29-Jun-13 06:45:32

Not intending to hijack this post, but just a few more thoughts......

I think it is important to ensure that DC have a Plan B in life. DS from a very early age had set his heart on a particular career, but despite his best efforts it did not happen. It was a hard lesson for him, but fast forward a couple of years and he is working in his chosen career, but in a different capacity.

I've always insisted that my children do some type of part time work, babysitting, shop work or temping to ensure they have a good work ethic, the satisfaction of a job well done, experience of team working, managing money etc. Being out in the real world, mixing with others and having to do stuff they would prefer not to do, focused their mind really well.

nooka Sat 29-Jun-13 07:07:23

Thea do you really believe that your ds spending two nights on his one visiting a university would be neglectful? That just seems a completely alien concept to me. My parents view was that if I chose to look at universities that were a long way away then it was up to me to figure out the logistics of visiting and if a nights stay was involved (which it was with several) then that's just how it was. They were very focused on independence, but I don't recall that being out of the norm - dh's family expected him to stay at a B&B in a strange town without it being an issue at all, and they were much much more supportive. Perhaps they were less apron strings because everyone else in his family had left school and got a job at 16, so 17 seemed more adult to them.

I have a 12 and 14 year old and I've been interested watching dd overcome serious friendship issues over the past year or two and seeing how much more resilient and wise she has become, so whilst I would totally wish away the pain she's been through (and have at times felt like seriously yelling at the children who have been very unkind to her) I think it has been a good learning experience. I've always been more of a shoulder to cry on / ear to listen I think (not much you can do about friendship fall out in any case) for her. ds gets very demanding about us fixing his problems, so it's much easier to say "no, sort it out yourself" to him!

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