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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.

nooka Sat 29-Jun-13 07:09:02

Totally agree on Plan B's. I had a friend at school who had totally set his heart on being a vet and was just gutted when he didn't get the grades (not that it was ever likely) I wish his parents /school had helped him to understand that there were other options which might have led to him working with animals in a different capacity.

KatyMac Sat 29-Jun-13 08:23:29

A big problem with visiting unis/colleges that involve an overnight stay is that hotels won't accept under 18's by themselves.

DD is 15 & has 11 open days/auditions coming up; unless they can be visited in a day DH or I will have to come.

DD wanted to do a course in London; the college seemed surprised I wasn't accompanying DD while she attended - we have managed to find accommodation with family but despite me knowing she was safe to be by herself no one would let her stay (unless lodging in a family home & DH/I worried about that - but that is a different argument)

On the course she won't be allowed to go for lunch by herself - despite her travelling nearly 200 miles to get to the course; so sometimes the limits are placed by external agencies

flow4 Sat 29-Jun-13 08:45:23

Yup, our mainstream culture often seems set to ensure that kids are 'protected' from any and all difficulties and challenges, not just dangers...

cory Sat 29-Jun-13 09:01:59

I think neglectful/not neglectful is a very individual thing, depending on all sorts of factors, including the capacity of the child, the wishes of the child, the general family dynamic, any past baggage etc etc.

My parents were anything but neglectful: they were always around to listen, they treated me with respect, they showed me that they enjoyed having me around and that they would do anything to help me out if I really needed it.

So when they decided, on my suggestion, that I might be allowed, aged 16, to spend a halfterm holiday alone in a hotel in a foreign city (instead of being farmed onto some strange family who probably didn't want me), this was an expression of their thoughtfulness, their (correct) assessment of my abilities and their willingness to listen to my pov. It made me feel more cared for, not less.

But in a different kind of family, with parents who always showed that they couldn't be bothered and that I would have to sort myself out because it was no concern of theirs, the same decision might have been the final straw that made me know I was uncared for.

And of course that basic security of knowing they cared also informs my decisions about my own children. I don't have to run around after dc and bring in their PE bags or sort out their prom because I have no underlying going-back-to-childhood fear that they won't know that I care. Ds can take his detention if he doesn't sort himself out in the morning because he knows and I know that I would sit up all night if he was really unhappy and needed me.

flow4 Sat 29-Jun-13 09:38:30

Good post cory.

I think my own parenting was shaped not just by past baggage, but by 'current baggage', if there is such a thing. When DS1 was little, I was very aware that I was all he had: his df b*ggered off, and I did not have much family support (all relatives distant, disinterested or dead)... I think I tried to compensate for the fact that DS had no other (useful) family by being 'super mum'. I felt bad that he didn't have much family support, so tried to make mine the best.

I suspect in families where there is a wider network of support, individual parents may be a bit more relaxed, and feel less like they need to 'make things perfect'.

cory Sat 29-Jun-13 10:23:28

That's interesting, flow (and sad, because you've had so much to cope with).

I suppose dd's situation is a bit different: her physical and MH issues don't really affect whether she feels loved or not. We have been fortunate in having a large supportive extended family (even if geographically distant) and a happy marriage.

Life has been a bit shit, but it's not really to do with people.

And in a sense we have known for a long time that we can't compensate: if you are unhappy because you are in pain or you can't dance when that's all you care for, then all the loving in the world won't undo that. You have to bear it because nobody else can bear it for you. It's a strange helpless feeling for a parent, but in a way it does perhaps make life easier because it is impersonal.

Theas18 Sat 29-Jun-13 16:00:25

Nokia no I don't think it's neglectful, but I don't believe a 17yr old can book/stay in a hotel alone - at least not with many complications ( eldest at 17 at the end of year 13 couldn't book even a campsite to go away with her mates- she found it, but they had to officially book).

Theas18 Sat 29-Jun-13 16:11:26

And don't get me started on the daft limits placed by other agencies...starting with school requiring year 13 kids to be met by an adult in the theatre after a performance when they were all capable of getting themselves home safely even ay 9.30pm (they were less than a term off uni after all) , or choir not letting 14yr old dd2 to go to the shops to buy some TA between rehearsal and concert (at 5pm) when she's normally in town at 5pm on her own on the way to choir on a week day anyway!

We just put up and smile ruefully as we appreciate " rules is rules" and child protection policies have to be stupidly tight but still.

nooka Sat 29-Jun-13 17:26:06

Wow Thea, that's crazy. I can understand wanting an adult guarantee perhaps, but blanket refusing to allow a young person to stay overnight is nuts. I wonder when that changed. I can totally see that would complicate things.

Sad, I had a couple of holidays with friends before I turned 18. I think we used youth hostels / camped in fields (by pubs). I book hotels quite a bit (travel with work) and can't recall giving my date of birth, although they are very keen on credit cards here, which is a bit of a proxy I guess.

ivykaty44 Sat 29-Jun-13 23:01:26

so at 17 a girl can get married, have a baby, drive herself to a hotel in a car but needs her mother to book the hotel room for the honeymoon grin

amothersplaceisinthewrong Sat 29-Jun-13 23:05:53

I seem to remember having to be the parent that booked for my 17 year old DD and friends to stay (sans adults) abroad on a package holiday. ANd then my DD had to arrange for one of the group to come home after a day as she was homesick without her mummy.

flow4 Sun 30-Jun-13 09:51:01

See, there's a very good example...

A girl gets homesick. All her kind, well-meaning friends and relatives arrange for her to come home. She is comforted and feels better. But psychologically and emotionally, she learns that if she feels bad (a) something must be done to stop bad feelings as soon SS possible; (b) she can't 'fix' it herself; she needs someone else to 'fix' problems for her; and (c) (because everyone rushed to help) bad feelings are dangerous and to be avoided at all costs. Next time she feels bad she also panics and needs help to make the bad feelings go away.

On the other hand... A girl gets homesick... Her kind friends reassure her but do nothing more. The girl stays. Then, psychologically and emotionally, she learns that if she feels bad (a) this is natural and will pass; (b) she can survive bad feelings. Next time she feels bad, she does not panic, and knows she can deal with it.

Even if she leaves when she feels homesick, if noone 'fixes' it for her and she arranges this herself, she learns she can deal with

flow4 Sun 30-Jun-13 09:52:13

Oops... deal with bad feelings by herself, and will be more in control and less likely to panic next time.

Chottie Tue 02-Jul-13 05:06:06

It's incredible how things have changed in a generation. I used to go youth hosteling with my friends for a week when I was 15. We booked and stayed in different hostels over a week and walked between them. My parents took me to the nearest station and off we went. We travelled about 350 miles away from home and did not contact our parents until we phoned from the station to say we were back.

I was very used to traveling around from a young age, I used to take my sister to school on the bus from the age of about 8. It was not uncommon. I used to go to the shops for my mum with my sister too. I rarely see young children out and about by themselves now.

Re. homesickness I can remember being away from home in France staying with a French family when I was about 14 and being very homesick. Did my parents come and get me early, no they didn't! What did I learn? that you have to get on with life and get through it. It has stood me in good stead.

BackforGood Tue 02-Jul-13 13:36:00

Absolutely agree with flow4 and Chottie and I do my best to bring my dcs up the way I was brought up. Teaching your dc a bit of resiliance is invaluable IMO.

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