This post originally appeared in Parent.co.
He is standing in front of me shaking as much from anger as from cold. It has been three days since I allowed him to walk out of indoor soccer without his new winter coat.
Eventually, I will realize that we both learned a lesson from this. Leo never lost a coat again, and I never bought him a brand new Patagonia anything. For now, though, we are still in a miserable place. He is covering his guilt with rage.
How did he get so unlucky as to have a mom who lets him lose his things? His friends have lovingly packed lunches, carefully checked homework, and pairs of mittens that are kept together by responsible adults. They race out of their parent’s cars to the playground while moms and dads follow behind toting backpacks and art projects. Leo and I walk to school together with my arms swinging free at my side.
During the 45 minutes that other families fight over homework, the four of us sit at the table together in silence. Steve and I read or work on our calendar or bills, the boys do whatever it is they do.
For Oliver, our older son, it is always homework carefully matched to the assignments on his planner. Meanwhile, Leo might write or read, or he might work on a packet of math that may or may not be the packet for this week.
There is an outer calm at our table. It doesn’t tell the story of what seethes inside me.
I look across the worn wood and realize that Leo is toiling over a worksheet from three weeks ago that dug out from some pile growing in a corner of his room. I see this week’s homework hidden under a folder, completely out of his sight and mind. Keeping my mouth shut and letting him fail is hard. Harder for me than sitting next to him and prodding him to finish his work, pointing out mis-read word problems and missing capitals. I would rather him fail now though. Fail fast, hard, early and often.
We preach about the success factors of flexibility, resiliency, and self-control. It is lip service, though. We rarely let our kids practice those skills in their daily lives.
There’s no question that I am a better third grader than my son.
It is annoying but efficient to nag our kids and insert ourselves into their routines. We are better at cleaning and cooking than they are. We are better at spelling and better at math (except for the super confusing new math). But what good does this do any of us?
He turned nine last month. Parent educator Vicky Hoefle reminds us that he should be halfway trained to leave the house. When I worry that we are not far enough along I remember my friend asking her ten year old if he needs to go potty. I think of a nine-year-old that doesn’t choose his clothes let alone wash them.
I listen to a mom list her top middle schools fully admitting that her daughter doesn’t like any of the top three contenders. I watch friends choose their kid’s passion projects for them, somehow thinking that passion for Pokemon isn’t high-minded enough for intermediate school.
It is hard to be hands-off. It is messy.
We have lived through bloody slices from sharp knives as Leo cut his own apples. He has come home hungry after his lunch of single box of chicken stock failed to fill his belly. We have school pictures featuring stained shirts and unwashed hair. He has skipped birthday parties because he hasn’t saved enough of his own money to buy a gift.
Even though I know natural consequences are the best possible teachers it has been hard for me too. There have been months when I can’t enter his bedroom to tuck him in because his floor is covered in clothes. I’ve thrown his sneakers in the trash because he has stunk them up with his sock-less feet. I have held my nose at the moldy laundry he left in the washer for four days. I have skipped our goodnight kiss because he has refused to brush his teeth. I have had to stay strong during whispered conferences in the hall as his teachers explain he has not handed in homework for months.
I have stood by as he wept, feeling unsupported by his mother. Feeling too young for the crushing responsibilities of his life. It is harder to watch him struggle to make myself integral to his success. I believe in giving them this latitude. I trust all of the times that he will fall down in his single digits will help him navigate life in the long run.
This morning he left for school with a smile.
He had his snack and Friday folder to return; he wore sneakers for PE, his GT math folder contained a note that he had written his teacher. He remembered an extra layer for our crisp weather. He walked into the kitchen after scooping the cat litter and charged his iPad. I sat sipping my tea, chatting with him about next weekend, and how much more cuddly our cat has been.
I may not pack his lunch, but I am right there with him in ways that I would not be able to be if I were a sherpa, chef, and proctor. As I kissed his minty mouth goodbye, it seemed that we really might be halfway there after all. Thanks to my bitten tongue and his bruised body from falling and getting up and falling and getting up again.
14 thoughts on “Parent through failure is not failing to parent.”
Yeah what in the hell is up with this stupid math. Talk about re-inventing the wheel!
This is fabulously awesome, Anna. You may be the wisest parent I know! Letting your children fail? What a concept! My own parents couldn’t help me navigate the college application and financial aid process back in the late 70s. It was all me. How dumb of we Boomers to snow plow and hover over our mostly young adult Millennials or younger ones. Gen X parents = tough love.
I’m not so sure about Gen X being tough love…but I’ll take the rest of it! xo
We are kindred spirits! I’m raising my boys the same way! They should know how to feed themselves, load the washer, etc. It’s hard but I won’t be there to hold their hand in college so they need to become self-sufficient. They help with yard work, are learning to use tools and unload the dishwasher.
Thanks for speaking up for the “hands-off” parenting folks!
I don’t understand the new style method of working things out maths either and in England anyway, new words have been introduced to describe certain words & phrases in the English language. I watch helplessly as my 9 year old tackles the subject with relative ease; my 11 yr old has added German & Spanish to his homework list … testing his spellings is a bit tricky as it was 30 years ago I learnt German and I can only ask for 2 beers in Spanish. At the end of the day they get there on their own merits … and as you say, by learning via their own failures too.
Beer. That is a good thing to learn the word for…
man! parenting is hard work and getting the balance right is different for every family. You can certainly make their path too smooth and the way too easy and the outcome is an entitled child who’s had a free ride. Resilience is a character trait that all our kids need in huge dollops and they only get it by going thru the tough times and coming out the other end.
Beautifully written and I so agree with the sentiment – we must give them room to grow, even if that means stepping out of reach, unable to catch them should they fall.
It’s hard, but you are a great parent who is looking out for her children in ways that they can’t comprehend right now. But when they are adults, they will be thanking you and so will everyone else.
Would it be wrong to be a neurotic helicopter parent (who me?) in nearly all respects, but suddenly be a hands-off, encouraging independence parent JUST for those maths problems? Just asking for a friend, you understand! 😉
You WERE told there would be no math.