Allow kids to learn from failures

April 4, 2007 | By Bob Raines

It was years ago, more than 20 I know, that I first saw that cute yellow sign hanging in the back window of a Volvo station wagon: “Caution. Baby on Board,” it said. “Wow,” I thought. “Now, that’s going to make me drive more cautiously.”

Well, 20-something years and two sons later, I realize that there was more to that sign than someone wanting me to lighten up on my lead foot. As a matter of fact, my generation, the Boomer Generation, has set some pretty amazing standards for parents.

A couple of months ago, I was listening to a speaker, William Strauss, characterize my generation as the “über (super) parents,” the generation that would do more and do it better for their kids than any generation that preceded it. We had off-road strollers, high-impact car seats, bottled water, and infant foreign-language tapes. And folks are finding out that our children’s generation, the “Millennial Generation,” is a pretty amazing group of kids.

They are high achievers. They are socially very aware, and generally very committed to the well-being of others. As a group, they get more done in two hours at the computer than I can manage in two days—instant-messaging, texting, writing and listening to music all at once.

An interesting characteristic of our children’s generation, though, is how much we have programmed their lives. It seems to go back to our determination to be the best parents we possibly can, making sure that our kids have the most exposure to the highest quality experiences.

Ballet lessons, traveling sports teams, after-school academic enrichment, Boy and Girl Scouts, 4-H and much more. My friends and I shake our heads at how busy our kids are in high school, but looking back, I think they’ve always had full schedules.

At school, we hear that some children don’t have time for their homework or other assignments because of these obligations. On the other hand, we also see that certain work we ask kids to complete becomes a family project.

When my sons were in Cub Scouts, we had a special Dads’ Division in the Pine Wood Derby for those of us who wanted the perfect little wooden car. At most science fairs, we have two divisions—one is for entries that are 95 percent the students’ work, and another is for “family projects.”

Well, this programming and supervising has had quite an effect on this generation. First of all, as I mentioned a bit before, this is an incredibly high-achieving group of kids.

Just take a look at the words that have decided the National Spelling Bee over the past few years. In 1967, when I was 13 years old, the winning word was “Chihuahua,” and the next year, it was “abalone.” In 2004, it was “autochthonous,” the next year, “appoggiatura” and last year, “Ursprache.” I’m not even sure how to pronounce those words, let alone know what they mean. And spell them? Get real.

Research is showing, though, that when our kids get on their own, in college and beyond, that we’ve not done the best job getting them ready. Many kids, once away from their parents, struggle mightily to manage their own time, handle long-term obligations and make decisions with the long-term in mind. It would seem that in our interest in being “super parents,” we’ve not allowed our kids to fail, periodically, and to learn important lessons from that failure.

I got to read a short selection from a book, “Good Kids, Bad Habits,” by Jennifer Trachtenberg, that had some good advice for parents who’d like to stem some of that trend. Dealing with homework and long-term assignments, Trachtenberg suggested steps for parents who want to help their kids in a constructive and productive way.

First, break large projects down into smaller, more manageable components. Second, start with the simple stuff. If kids start with the most difficult, they may be too tired or upset to complete the assignments that are a breeze.

Here’s a big one. Don’t give them the answers—help them find the answers. And another big step is to ask them what they can do on their own and what they might need help with. Success with one task may make them suspect they can do the others, too.

Teach kids how to manage time with a notebook or calendar that tracks assignments and due dates (I wish I had done better with this one). Some kids naturally seek help from peers, but if yours don’t, encourage them to team up with a classmate for a study session on the phone or online, or maybe even in person.

There’s not much we can do for those kids who are already off to college or work, but we can do something for our kids still at home. We don’t have to make everything easy for them. As a matter of fact, a little stress early might make for a happier young adult down the road.

Connections