Years ago, I read an article entitled “What if Failure Was the Key to Success” about student success in a private school in the New York City area. The author asked “what would happen if we allowed our kids to fail?” Would small failures allow us to develop the tools necessary for the inevitable failures and obstacles we would encounter during our lives? This article was written before the recent college admission scandal and before “mindset” became a buzzword, however, in hindsight, they are connected and add a new dimension of child development.  If we consider the role parents, teachers, coaches and society play in the lives of children we can better understand some of the choices or actions which have led many down this new path of unprecedented parental intervention, a path in which many children are currently growing up on.

When I was a child there seemed to have been a different set of rules. My parents had their roles and responsibilities in our family and my siblings and I had ours.  We had household chores, we had to go to school, do homework, take tests and then apply to college. That line was always very clear. The line on respect was also very clear. My parents taught us to be respectful to teachers and any other adults with whom te came into contact with. While you might have thought someone was not deserving of respect, this was not acted upon or voiced for others to hear.  If the teacher sent home a note or called the house you knew it was serious. My parents would never consider going into school and blaming the teacher for my failures, those were squarely mine. No one would call a coach to complain about play time.  I understand the frustration of a young child’s parent who wants their child to participate and have fun, but incredibly this is happening today at both the collegiate and professional level. 

During the 1970’s, television shows such as The Brady Bunch addressed society and respect with their children. Respect, accountability, and having the belief that hard work is important are qualities which are now often overlooked, especially when the easy fix is to blame others, rather than have a “hard discussion” between parents and one’s children. 

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Dr. Carol Dweck has spent her career researching how individual beliefs about one’s ability to succeed and achieve affect one’s efforts. More importantly, the response in how one adapts and responds from failure could act as a guide and can, with effort and perseverance, become a tool for future success. Although parents often intervene with the best of intentions, to help gain admission into the school of their choice, to right a wrong or shield their children from hurt or from the pain of failure, these good intentions do not provide the tools for future success. 

A child needs to develop life-skill tools for success. Part of these tools include having the belief that hard work is necessary,  that failures and set backs are acceptable, but more importantly, these setbacks and small failures are just: setbacks and small failures, not life altering defeats.

Ben Franklin said “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn”. We learn from both doing and observing.  When children watch their parents consistently intervene on their behalf, do we help or hinder development? Will children have the tools, a strong foundation built on self-confidence and social skills to successfully navigate situations, such as conflict resolution?  Will they have the ability to stand up for themselves when parents are not there to cushion the fall?  While I realize growing up in the 70‘s is very different from growing up today, parental roles, even in dual income families, still should have the common goal of raising healthy, happy, responsible and independent children. 

Lisa Smith, M.A. DEVM, Teachers College-Columbia University, is an Educational Consultant, specializing in customized workshops supporting child development through Play, Mindset + Academic Success, and Study Skills, and an Adjunct Professor of Psychology at U.C.C. She can be reached at Ljs2198@TC.Columbia.edu