When my son Jonathan was young, we did what many dads and sons do. We played Wiffle ball in our yard. My son has a number of talents, but we soon discovered that swinging a bat in such a way that it would make contact with a ball is not one of them. But I’ve always loved baseball, and I desperately wanted my son to succeed at the sport. I found myself making it easier and easier. I moved closer, threw the ball slower.
Eventually, Jonathan hit the ball. I’m pretty sure it was an accident, but we both celebrated anyway. Of course, then he wanted to keep hitting, and since we had a good thing going, I didn’t want to let him down, didn’t want to see him fail. I made hitting the ball so easy, it was almost T-ball.
Later, we actually did sign him up for T-ball. He stood in the outfield, staring at his mitt or into space. It just wasn’t his thing. But I couldn’t let Jonathan fail at the game I loved so much. And I really didn’t want him to believe that he was failing.
Eventually, my attempts to avoid the reality of my son’s limitations caught up with me — and with Jonathan. All the steps I’d taken to make baseball easy for him were appropriate when he was 5 years old. They were not as appropriate as he entered fourth grade. By not allowing him to experience reality, I’d given him some false expectations and assumptions. He believed he was pretty good at baseball — and drew laughter from peers when they saw him play. And so one day we had a little heart-to-heart talk. I confessed my long desire to protect him from failing at the sport.
We all want to see our kids succeed in school, in sports and in life. But we often parent in ways that can stunt maturity. We remove failure and disappointment, pain and heartbreak, believing we will ruin our children’s self-esteem if they experience these things.
Now, I agree that kids need to feel special and believe they can be successful. But this doesn’t mean we shield them from reality. The opposite is true. Genuine, healthy self-esteem develops when caring adults identify children’s strengths but also allow them the satisfaction and maturity that come from persevering through failure, pain and disappointment. This authentic triumph builds tough emerging adults.
Allowing kids to face reality creates resilience, strength and confidence. Here are four well-intentioned yet misguided ways that parents often shield their kids from the realities of life. By avoiding these parenting mistakes, we can help our kids gain the strength they need to thrive no matter what comes their way:
We won’t let kids fail
This was probably my main mistake with my son and his experiences in baseball. I couldn’t stand to see him fail.
Think of how our culture has changed. In the past, when a student got in trouble in school, maybe got a bad grade or failed a class, parents reinforced the teacher’s decisions and insisted the student work harder. Too many parents today side with their child, blaming the teacher for the poor report. They’ve made their children their trophies — a reflection of the parents’ success. So every kid must be a winner or get the great grade, even if they didn’t learn a subject or win a championship. Obviously, this is not how life works after childhood.
Life teaches lessons in a way that parenting sometimes cannot. As parents, we must embrace the reality that character, faith and resilience are often developed through failure. Identify opportunities to allow your children to take calculated risks, to experience outright failure on a project or in a class, a hobby or a sport.
Coach them, yes, but don’t intervene and do it for them. Let them build emotional muscle that is capable of enduring a failure and seeing that they can live through it — that there really is life afterward.
We value removing all pain
When our daughter, Bethany, was in middle school, her school hosted a dance. Our daughter’s middle school years were like many girls’: She didn’t look like the beautiful young woman that she would someday become. So she waited and waited for a boy to ask her to the dance. My wife and I began hearing about other parents intervening. They called friends and requested that their sons ask their little girls to the dance. They gave suggestions on where to eat and what flowers to buy. They even offered to pay. We considered this. It would have ended the painful waiting, might even have boosted Bethany’s self-esteem. But we knew this might be a good time for our daughter to learn how to navigate a painful situation. We had many conversations with her, reminiscing about difficult social events in our day. We then suggested that she could go with a group of friends. She grew satisfied with that solution, even appearing content.
And then, at the last minute, a friend did ask her to the dance. Ugh — middle school boys!
We live in a world that believes in removing all pain from our children’s lives. But my wife and I wondered: Is a life really better if it has less pain but fails to prepare a child for the unavoidable pain later in adulthood?
Do not mistake the role of comforter as being one who removes all discomfort. Pain is often a valuable gift from God, a lesson in how to avoid harmful situations. Real harm only results if we fail to heed what the pain is telling us to do. We need to collaborate with our children to help them navigate through the pain, empower them to deal with the heartache that accompanies life, and encourage them to remain grateful and content. This equips our future adults to stand strong in difficult moments.
We prioritize happiness
My son’s fifth-grade year was tough. His best friend moved away, leaving him without a classmate who shared his interests. Our fun-loving son grew quiet and reserved. He wasn’t gifted at sports, so recess became a lonely time. He never complained, but my wife and I could tell he was miserable. When we asked what he did on the playground, he replied, “Oh, I just walk around by myself.” I cringed. And I began trying to “fix” the problem. What steps could we take to make recess more fun?
“It’s OK, Dad,” my son interrupted. “Recess gives me time to think.”
I was proud of Jonathan that he never whined or expected us to fix things. And we did work together on solutions that enabled him to move beyond his misery. Things really turned around when he got involved with community theater. Here our son encountered a new circle of friends and was able to use his growing gifts in a meaningful way. In the end, the answer did not lie in him pursuing fun and happiness, but in finding a place where he could discover and develop his gifts.
We’re living in a different culture than the one we grew up in — one where happiness is a goal instead of a byproduct. Who doesn’t want their children to be happy? Especially when it comes to the big decisions in their lives — whom they marry, their career path, their faith and values. Yet we as parents often don’t know how to balance wise counsel with our yearning for our kids to be happy.
We mustn’t pursue happiness itself as a selfish pleasure. Life is quite a paradox. If happiness is the goal for our kids, we will create consumers who want more and more to make them happy. But if the goal is loftier — giving, serving, participating in the grand plans God has for us — happiness is often a nice side effect.
We take away the fight
I recently read an article about the parenting habits among certain groups of wealthy parents. Some of these were truly bizarre. Did you know that, if your pockets are deep enough, you can hire “recreation experts” to help your kids play with each other, to learn about sharing, cooperating and managing conflict? Few parents can afford such parenting aids, but I wonder if many of us aren’t guilty (to a lesser extent) of the same principle: We seek to remove adversity from our kids’ lives. We make games easier, rush to fix boredom, jump in to help with difficult assignments.
Life requires struggle in order for kids to mature. Facing and overcoming adversity conditions us to be strong enough to handle what’s ahead. Opposition and hardship force us to reach down and pull out the very best that lies within us. As parents, we must pause before we provide direction or assistance for our children. It’s normal to want to remove hardship, but it’s not in their best interests. They need us to be responsive to them and demanding of them at the same time. Encourage them that they have what it takes to overcome adversity. Brainstorm a plan to beat it.
I remember finding a chrysalis in a backyard tree when I was kid. I laid it on our driveway and waited for the butterfly to spring out. But it wasn’t happening. Of course, I’d heard that you shouldn’t help a butterfly emerge from its chrysalis, but wouldn’t just a little help be OK? I pried open the chrysalis a tiny bit, and finally a leg poked out. After waiting and watching awhile, I helped some more. I continued to pry the chrysalis open until the opening was big enough for the creature to emerge. But it wasn’t a butterfly that crawled out. The creature was dark and deformed and never flew. It died by the end of the day.
My help really wasn’t help. When I removed the struggle, I took away the butterfly’s opportunity to build enough strength to push its way out. In the end, I actually removed its ability to fly.
When we give kids the freedom to fight and fail and find their way through the pain of life, we are not hurting them. We are helping them build the strength they need to fly.
Tim Elmore is the president of Growing Leaders, a nonprofit that helps develop young leaders.