Seconds into Julie Lythcott-Haims’ talk from the stage a few years ago, I knew I was hearing from a kindred spirit. An advocate of raising our children to become competent adults, this former Stanford University Dean of Freshmen, attorney, author – and mother of two teenagers – reflected on her surprise at just how ill-prepared she had found the young people on Stanford’s campus to be.
She’s written a New York Times Bestseller on the topic and accompanying TedTalk garnered 3.2 million views. I admire her greatly – and agree with her wholeheartedly. In fact, her thesis, that we hamper our children’s development and their futures when we hover over them, smoothing every bump in the road lest they trip and have to figure out how to right themselves, is the way I raised my children, as well as the foundation of my parent-coaching practice.
What kids need most from parents is unconditional love, that’s a given. Parents also have the fundamental, irrefutable and powerful job of educating, protecting and nurturing our children.
But also tops on the list of parental to-dos is this: We must get out of our children’s way and let them fall, fail and falter so they can figure out how to succeed.
Believe me, I understand the urge to step in. It’s much easier and more efficient if we tie our toddler's shoe rather than wait the interminable 20 minutes for her to do it herself. Yet being bigger, faster and stronger than our kids doesn’t give us the right to rob them of the most important lessons that failure and hard times can teach.
If we do everything for them, we’ll have reared a generation sadly and seriously ill equipped to take on the essential jobs of running our countries and saving our planet.
Let’s set our kids up for true success in life by adhering to these 5 ways to raise competent, compassionate and resilient adults.
1. Let them do it themselves (even if it’s not perfect). It doesn’t matter if that’s tying their own shoelaces when they’re toddlers or negotiating what they consider to be an unfair grade with a teacher, mastering a skill gives children the confidence to face the next challenge that comes their way. If you’ve assigned them a task and they do it – but not up to your adult standards – let it be. By redoing their work you undermine their sense of pride in accomplishing the task.
2. Let them fight their own fights. Intentional parents let their children resolve their conflicts – or learn valuable lesson by trying. Of course, if there is a risk of grave harm you need to intervene. But generally, getting in the middle sends the message you don’t believe your kids are capable of navigating and negotiating a conflict on their own. A wound like that may never fully heal.
3. Let them fail. Watching a child fail is probably one of the most excruciating things a parent can do. But it’s also a priceless opportunity for our kids. I remember when my eldest, then a sophomore in college, fell behind and was poised for academic probation. He was a bit frantic when he realized the predicament he was in, but having been allowed to fail multiple times during the course of his young life, he knew what he had to do. And he did it.
4. Let them struggle with things that are hard. In an animated video about helicopter parents shared by The Atlantic magazine, Lythcott-Haims notes most parents are enthusiastic about letting their kids struggle with learning how to walk, but generally start stepping in soon thereafter. Don’t. They eventually learned how to walk, didn’t they? I promise they’ll learn how to do most of the other stuff they need to survive without constant parental interference masquerading as loving support.
5. Let it begin today! Even if you failed to do the previous 4 things when your kids were 2 or 4 or 10, begin today. Better to realize you’ve handicapped your child and pivot than to keep on making the same mistake! It won’t be an easy transition for either you or the kids, but with practice everyone will get the hang of it. Best yet, your children will bear the fruits of their labor, even if they’re cranky about the extra effort in the short run.
By the way, if you haven’t read Lythcott-Haim’s book, get yourself to your library, neighborhood bookstore or favorite online vendor. It’s one of the best parenting books around. And for more reading on the subject, check out my HuffPo piece from 2014 https://bit.ly/2nnlpW5.