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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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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.

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).

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.

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 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 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...

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

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.

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!

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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!)

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?

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.

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

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