Maggie Dent is one of Australia’s favourite parenting authors, a former teacher and counsellor, and host of the ABC podcast, Parental As Anything. In this article, she explores why letting our children fail may be a gift for life.
While the landscape around parenting has changed quite drastically over the last 50 years, parents still want the same things. We all want our children to grow up to be happy, healthy, competent and capable.
Also, what children need to grow well and to thrive has not changed at all, however the world around our children has changed a lot.
Parents tell me all the time that they feel judged by others – both in the real world and online. Often the developmentally normal (and yet challenging) behaviours of toddlers through to teens are seen to be a problem, a sign of poor parenting.
I can reassure you as the mother of four sons who are now responsible capable adults, that I had many moments where the choices they made, impulsively, spontaneously and in the name of fun, made me look like a terrible parent!
This includes the meltdown in the supermarket that saw one of my toddlers throw a kilogram of yoghurt in anger because I chose the wrong flavour. Then there was the stolen book from the book fair that was found in one of my son’s bags. And yes, I confess, I committed the cardinal sin of completely forgetting Book Week one year and the pillowcases with hastily drawn images and words on them as costumes really did suck!
Parenting is not a perfect artform; it never was and it never will be.
Overprotecting our kids comes at a cost
One of the changes that I have noticed in the shift away from punitive parenting, which had a major focus on punishment to change unwanted challenging behaviour, is the overprotection of children.
Well-intentioned parents spend hours trying to protect their children from experiencing moments of imperfection, especially failure.
From toddlerhood, our children are wired to explore the world around them. What we may see through the lens of ‘poor’ or ‘disappointing’ behaviour, the science of child development would suggest is healthy growth. Yes, the smearing of your favourite face cream on the dog, on the carpet, on the cupboard and through their hair is a sign that they are experiencing massive sensory exploration as they grow endlessly valuable synapses in their brains.
The ‘seeking mechanism’ of the toddler brain is designed to be curious and failure is an essential part of that exploration of the world. I would argue that experiences like the unravelling of toilet rolls, the emptying of the entire shampoo bottle into the bath water and the tasting of the occasional snail, are a sign that your child is nurturing their potential genius qualities.
Kids are kids, prone to making poor choices – dropping things, drawing on the wrong things with permanent marker, being selfish and struggling to share, having meltdowns, falling over, and having bumps and bruises while playing freely – because they have an underdeveloped brain with which to make better choices.
When children are protected from failing or being disappointed – regardless of whether this comes from a place of love – it will come at a cost later in life when a moment of challenge or setback arrives (and it will).
Allowing curiosity builds self-determination
Self-determination and grit can be shaped in the early years as well as through to the teen years. Essentially, self-determination theory (SDT) assumes that what is inherent in human nature is the capacity to be curious about one's environment and interested in learning and developing one's knowledge.
There is often a degree of intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation that can be cultivated. Unfortunately, a combination of ‘behaviourism’ and the self-esteem movement has seen rewards and punishment (which are extrinsic forms of motivation) perceived as the best way to teach children how to make good choices. These days, I think children almost get stickers for breathing, and they are often over praised. I once heard a parent say to a child in the playground, ‘good smiling!’.
Rather than let children experience more moments of disappointment, especially under five, well-intentioned parents are constantly clearing any challenges or obstacles out of the way, so that their children can have a wonderful, happy childhood.
I have been writing for over 20 years about the demise of the party gave, Pass the Parcel. There used to be one winner, but somewhere in recent years the rules changed and now everyone gets a prize.
This shift aimed at protecting kids from being disappointed, has meant many children have seldom experienced disappointment.
We need our kids to know how it feels to not get what you want or to be let down by life because it will happen right throughout your whole life. The ability to navigate bigger emotions, especially challenging feelings like disappointment and despair, need to be practised early in life because it will build emotional buoyancy which is a key factor of self-determination as a grown-up.