When my oldest son was in second grade, he was assigned a dinosaur diorama project. I found an old shoebox and left him to complete the assignment on his own. He did a reasonable job, although nothing stellar.
Several weeks later, I attended a parent-teacher conference and noticed the projects on display. Most were exceptional - meticulous, detailed, and beautifully designed. In other words - not the work of seven or eight-year-olds. When I asked if other parents, perhaps, had played a role, the teacher just sighed. Yes, most of the parents completed the projects along with their kids... or even for them. She had come to expect this.
I was stunned - partly by my own naivete, but mostly by the sheer number of parents who had been so involved in this relatively unimportant project. Why was it so critical that their children excel - even at such a minor task?
When parents sometimes get too involved
Parents intervene to help their children, even it means "breaking the rules." The pressures parents feel are all too common. When it is 9:00 PM and their frustrated, whining child begs for their help. When they worry that they will be judged by teachers or friends or family for not helping enough. When their own perfectionistic tendencies compel them to take over. When their tearful, anxious child is distraught and overwhelmed.
There may be unique and justifiable reasons for any of the above interventions. But what happens when they occur regularly?
Much has been written about the importance of building resilience, allowing children to fail, and knowing when to stand back and let them struggle. We know that children build confidence and competence by learning from experience and weathering disappointment. Yet sometimes, worried parents can get a bit too overinvolved. Jessica Lahey, for example, has described middle school parents who insisted their children could do no wrong, who rescued them from any sign of struggle, or viewed a B- grade as a blemish on their child's record. The college admissions cheating scandal clearly epitomizes parental involvement gone awry. And we all know of families where children have yet to complete a chore, or where parents quickly withdraw them from any class that is too demanding.
Why we get too involved
No one likes to fail. It feels lousy. And it is especially painful to watch our children fail or struggle. Too many of us have been traumatized or shamed by failures of our own, and hope to shield our children from hurt. Gifted children, in particular, may be highly reactive, sensitive to perceived rejection, and reluctant to take academic risks. While headlines about “helicopter” parenting make good press, most parents are rarely so extreme. Most just want to protect their children from hardship. Yet, when we intervene too readily, we interfere with our child's resilience-building; resolving an immediate problem by taking over what your child could reasonably handle only delays their independence, confidence, and the capacity to endure stressful situations.
Of course, perfection is a lofty goal in parenting, and none of us always gets it right. While I believe my minimalist role in the dinosaur project was appropriate, I plead guilty to imperfect parenting - sometimes overdoing it, sometimes not doing enough, and not always making the best decisions. And there are times when parents absolutely need to be involved - situations where a child is truly struggling, or is depressed or anxious and needs more hands-on support, or needs a push to study effectively, such as when a particular test (e.g., the SAT's) will determine long-range opportunities. This level of attuned encouragement is different from pressuring your child too much (see this link). However, there are some general goals we can strive toward as we encourage confidence and resilience in our gifted children.
Managing the sting of failure
The ideas listed below (Part One of a series on resilience), as a first step toward managing the sting of failure, address how failure experiences are perceived. In addition to resilience-building skills (which will be addressed in Part Two), it is essential to frame failure with an open mind and accepting attitude. A failure experience is less emotionally painful when viewed as part of a learning process, rather than as a sign of generalized incompetence or an indication that nothing will improve. If it can be understood as a normal part of growth and development and an opportunity for learning and self-awareness, its negative impact is diminished.
1. Respect their feelings
First, acknowledge your child's pain. Failure experiences sting; even when the situation seems minor to us, it can be a big deal for your child. Let your child know you understand and appreciate the suffering associated with feelings of anguish or embarrassment or disappointment. This does not mean dwelling on the negative, or enabling setbacks, or "coddling." As Brene Brown has noted, the recent cultural and media focus on grit and the "redemptive power" of failure overlook "the large swaths of darkness and struggle preceding it." Let your child know that you understand - and will be available as they move through and past it.
2. Reframe failure
Help your child "reframe" the concept of failure. If we view failure as a normal part of life and an opportunity for learning, its negative impact is diminished. Self-awareness, borne out of success, failure, and life in general, results in micro-adjustments to how we respond to stress, push ourselves, size up situations, and recalibrate when things don't go as planned. These are essential, necessary life skills. We also can help our children learn to distinguish between variations on the theme of failure. There are tiny failures (like forgetting their lunchbox), medium-sized failures (not finishing an essay on time), or big ones (like failing an entire course). Some sting more than others, but all are opportunities for growth and development.
As parents, we also serve as role models. Our children (more than we realize, sometimes) how we handle stressful situations. We have the opportunity to demonstrate that we can cope with failure and that it is a normal part of life. It happens all the time - when we burn the waffles, forget our friend's birthday, or even lose our job. We can role model how to weather these events without shame, learn from them, and makes changes so that we behave differently in the future. Our children see that we are not crushed by failure, even if we feel frustrated or disappointed. In other words, they witness our resilience.
3. Put it in perspective
Your child's independence, confidence, and self-sufficiency are the ultimate goals. Keeping this perspective will guide you when choices get tough. Encouraging your child's independence is not a "hands-off" policy; in fact, it involves encouraging your child to face challenging situations, creating expectations for success, and refusing to "rescue" or shield them from developmentally-appropriate responsibilities. You can encourage your child to take academic risks, and appreciate how some achievements are more meaningful when they initially seemed out of reach. And you can promote the importance of ethics, integrity, cooperation with peers, and taking responsibility for their role in the classroom. Let your child know that actions speak more about character than accomplishments, and how one behaves is more important than being the best.
A final note:
Part two will address specific resilience-building strategies.