I am sitting across two kind, caring, and hardworking parents who are concerned about their 16-year-old son’s maturity, decision-making, effort in school, and most recently, his ability to pass his driver’s test to get his license. Their strong-willed teenager refuses to practice for the test with the family car, and insists on taking the test in the larger, and much cooler, old family truck which he plans on driving once he gets his license. His dad explains all of the mechanical problems with the old truck and why he feels it will limit his chances of passing the test, and how upset his son will be if he doesn’t pass. There have been several battles over this issue, as there have been in the past with homework, chores and commitment to his sports. His dad asks me, “So what should we do about the driver’s test?” I said, “Let him use the truck.” I will never forget the expression on dad’s face when he responded, “And let him fail?” It was an expression of shock, disbelief and confusion.
I have known these parents for a long time. They are great parents and good people. What did I say? I had to check myself. Was I inappropriate, challenging, or provocative? I realized I was being provocative, but not because I was trying to, but because I was challenging a current parenting paradigm — we need to protect our children from failure and pain.
This experience took me back to a talk I attended by a family therapist. She said we were raising a generation of kids who had underdeveloped “disappointment muscles.” She said our kids are not learning how to handle disappointment and that a primary parenting goal should be helping our kids learn to handle adversity and the inevitable disappointment of life.
Welcome to over-parenting.
I am not sure when the parenting tide changed, when parenting became and enterprise and a profession by which you were judged and rated daily compared to others in your community. I do know my grandparents, as immigrants, main job in childhood was to first survive, second support their family, and third, try to have a better live in the United States. I am certain my great-grandparents weren’t concerned about my grandparent’s identity development. My grandparents worked hard to provide for my parents. They were “old school.” If you stepped out of line, you got yelled at or hit, there was no talking about feelings or problem-solving, and you went to school then went to college (first generation to do so) or got a job. I am not saying this was the way to parent, and there were clearly some consequences of this parenting style, but it did seem simple.
Somewhere in my generation, being raised in the ’70s and ’80s, things started to change. Parents became more involved in their children’s life. Overall, this was a good thing. Parents coached, worked in classrooms, read books about raising kids with positive self-esteem and confidence. “How do you feel? Are you okay? Is something wrong? It’s important to talk about your feelings” became more common questions and discussions. The “self-esteem” movement, as many referred to it, was the way to raise healthy kids. But was it?
Then in the 2000s, “helicopter parents” became a thing. Many parents were accused of “hovering” over their kids, and many were—and still are. I am not judging these parents. Being a parent for 15 years, and working with parents for over 20 years, I know that the vast majority of the time, “hovering” is motivated by good intentions. They want their children to be “successful;” they don’t want their children to suffer; they want their children to be happy; and they want them to feel good about themselves. Don’t you want these things for your kids? I certainly do.
But here’s the deal. We need our kids to learn to cope and face adversity. We need our kids to learn what disappointment and pain feels like. We need our kids to have an accurate understanding of the world—sometimes we meet our goals, other times (and often) things don’t work out. How do we help our kids learn to deal with life if we don’t expose them to real life by doing everything for them, getting them on the best teams, doing their homework and shielding them from the inevitable disappointment and randomness of life. Are we really preparing them to be “successful” if they don’t know how to tolerate emotional pain, problem-solve, dig deep, adapt and evolve to life’s ever-changing conditions?
My mother was very involved in my and my younger brother’s life. She was, and is, a committed and loving parent (and grandparent). She never liked to see us suffer disappointment and did her best to support us in all ways. I recount a story about her and my brother to my clients to help them understand the challenges of parenting and the tolerance a parent must have toward their own emotional pain.
In middle school, my brother was having social challenges. My mother dropped him off at the high school carnival where I was, to meet his “friends.” As she pulled away, she saw all four of them ditch him and leave him alone in the big parking lot. She said it was a painful moment she will never forget, and that she had to dig deep to keep on driving and let him sort it out. It was one of her finest parenting moments from my perspective. My brother did figure it out. He found new, real friends that remain friends with him today. I have found myself in similar parenting situations and know how hard it is to let things unfold rather than step in and fix them.
So, should dad let his kid potentially fail his driver’s test because his son wants to do things his own way? Yes! What a wonderful lesson both in personal strength and individuality as well as potential real life consequences (which are not life threatening). As you continue on your parenting journey, ask yourself whether you are managing your child’s life in a way that is over-protecting them from reality. Are you preparing them to deal with life’s challenges? Do they know how to persevere when things are hard? Do they know how to fail? Do they understand they can’t always win, get on the best team, and get an A? It takes a lot of courage, in my opinion, to parent these days. Try not to compare yourself to others. Trust your instincts. Focus on the values you want your child to understand and have. Most importantly, be kind to yourself since you will make lots of mistakes. It is normal.
This piece originally appeared on PsychologyToday.com.