Baby Bird: Letting Your Children Fail
When a baby bird is trying to hatch, it will peck the shell until it cracks open and falls away, and then the bird is finally able to emerge. If some overly-ambitious helper comes along to crack the shell and “help” the baby, it will probably die. The pecking process actually strengthens the baby bird’s muscles and stimulates its brain and those skills are essential if it is to survive on its own.
Consider parenting our own children. Don’t we hear ourselves whine endlessly that so many young people don’t have the skills they need to be self-sustaining adults because their parents have lovingly and with the best of intentions done everything for them? Could it be true that over-parenting is the biggest problem facing young people today?
You know you say it. I do too.
We have a whole generation of young people who can’t say, “I screwed up and I’m sorry.”
Truth is, everyone grows up to be just fine. Even helicopter moms raise kids who function perfectly well within society but, to be honest, I still have a problem with those mamas. Their kids grow up to be good, tax-paying citizens but they still have to pass through my classroom on their way. I get to know them before they inevitably grow up to do one thing really poorly: they can’t set right their own mistakes and they don’t really know how to fail with integrity. We have a whole generation of young people who can’t say, “I screwed up and I’m sorry.” At most, they muster a “My bad,” but that’s a far cry from carrying real, ownable blame or genuine, adult regret when they drop the proverbial ball.
We continue to be their fixers. We fix their homework stress by doing their homework for them; we fix their low grades by harassing the daylights out of their teachers; we fix their brushes with the law with shrewd small-town networking; we publicly critique their coaches and call them inept; we fix their empty wallets by filling them up again — we make sure we assist in fixing every single thing that goes awry in their lives so that each one of their emotional, spiritual, legal, and physical needs is met at the pass. And we never, ever diminish their self-esteem by telling them that sometimes they can be damn hard to like, extremely difficult to understand, stupid and illogical in their reasoning, and ridiculously frustrating to deal with. Can you imagine having the steel to say to your child, “Can you handle this ONE crisis on your own for Chrissakes!”
We crack open their emotional baby-bird shells for them without giving them a chance to do it on their own. Why?
The greatest parenting epiphany I’ve experienced in a long time came yesterday at my son’s swim meet. He is a freshman and it’s his first year on our school’s swim team. Naturally, I want him to be the best. What if I told you he’s won almost all of his races? It’s true, but what most people don’t know when I tell them that is that he wins because he swims in a younger class of competitors that are not usually a threat to him, the B-team is what they call it. So every day when I give reports to family and friends on how his swim meet went, my bragging is secretly tainted with the knowledge that he is not really the fastest swimmer; he is really only one of the fastest of the slower, newer swimmers on our team. Why do I hide this? What parenting law says I can’t let my child be not-perfect? Why do I feel like I’d be betraying him if I said out loud, “Son, you’re good, but you’re far from the best.” If I were ever to admit to others that “he blew that race today” or “he bombed the heck out of that test, and to be honest, he deserved to,” why would I feel like I’d just diminished his entire worth and shamed his very existence? Why can’t I say from time to time, “Kid, your life is a real shit-show sometimes.” There have been few times when I’d certainly be telling the truth.
Back to the swimming…It has been this way all season: me as the proud mom whose main goal in life is to make sure her child’s self-esteem is thriving. That is, until yesterday when he met me wide-eyed in the hall of the gymnasium, fully dressed and ready to go home after a long day. He stopped to tell me that he was swimming the last relay of the day with the A-team. The fast kids. Say what? He told me he was nervous. I knew it was his fear talking. He was terrified of failing, of letting everyone down.
They lost. He kicked and pulled his way through four laps with all the fastest swimmers in our area and all I did was watch and hold my breath. I worried about what might happen, and what would people say, and what will I say when I see him, to make it all better? My helicopter hovered so low down I could have practically landed it in his lap.
The race wasn’t pretty at all, but it wasn’t exactly a disaster either. It didn’t go well and it didn’t go poorly. It just went, and he did his part. Nobody died of humiliation. Nobody was disgusted about having him on that relay. All of that nonsense was in my own head. It was just a blip on the radar of life and he weathered it just fine. There were no congratulations and no accolades about swimming with the A-team and how well he did. That would have been an exercise in petting his ego unnecessarily, and I would have been hammering on his shell if I’d done that. I also didn’t humiliate him with a brow-beating. Whacking his shell wide open with a billy club wouldn’t have been good for him either. But we did speak honestly about the experience and I let him do the talking. All in all, it was just another race, one of many that are both real and metaphorical, not the first one he would lose and certainly not the last one.
We have to let them screw up or to perform poorly, and then they have to learn how to do better. We have to allow them to fail with dignity, to let people down sometimes, and teach them that there is value in being humbled. Only by losing do men learn humility, and humility is essential if you ever expect to be married or raise children. Losing teaches us to say we’re sorry and how to make amends. Why should we rob our children of the opportunity to learn to apologize? To say, “I screwed up and I am really sorry. I know I let you down and I want to make it up to you.” That is what makes a worthy husband, a respectable wife, an inspiring boss and a loyal friend. Losing, getting into trouble, and failing all have great ways of making us much better people. Being wrong sometimes is a blessing; making mistakes is a virtue! When we are allowed to have flaws, and when we exhibit the skill and fortitude to be imperfect, we become ambassadors for forgiveness. Winning all the time and being ‘the best’ at everything does the opposite. Breaking their shells for them is really, really bad parenting. It feels good at the time but it hobbles their core goodness.
I vowed after that race to get out of his way more often.
I know he can handle it if I will simply create an environment that allows him to try. Remember, we’re raising our children for someone else to live with one day. If we raise men and women who can lose admirably and who can screw up and then apologize when they’re wrong, then we’ve gone a long way in teaching them to be a person others will enjoy having around.
A year after this piece was written, while swimming in the District Championships, Ben made an error in a race that disqualified his entire relay team. In a race that was destined to advance even further, he blew it. That was a tough day for both of us and for the other three boys on his relay team. Some of them were Seniors, and were suddenly and unexpectedly swimming the last race of their high school career, because of Ben’s mistake. I let him bear that by himself, alone with one of his coaches, someone who would talk to him truthfully about what happened. There were tears for sure, mostly mine. I wanted to make it better but a parent can’t fix something like that and it wasn’t my place anyway. I trust that he owned his blame and made his own amends. I don’t know. But what I do know is that he is a better man for having endured that experience and I see that now.