A Catholic Parent Takes on the Challenges of Parenting

Every day, the cross, with joy!

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Letting Kids Fail

As parents, most of us want our children to be successful. We want them to be academically successful. We have high hopes for college and their future careers. Some of us may prioritize their athletic success, musical/artistic success, or all of these. We want them to be kind and well-mannered, to be thoughtful of others. Even when we desire their supernatural end above all else, we can easily narrate how earthly success - the using of their gifts and talents for God's glory - can hasten their journey toward the supernatural end.

I have noted elsewhere the importance of fostering independence and the mortification of letting go in that respect. Related to that mortification is the mortification of letting our kids fail. Precisely because we want success for our children, their failure can be disappointing for us. If we know they have the ability, but are lacking in hard work, it can be especially mortifying. But even when they do have the work ethic and natural ability, they may still fail, or anyway, fail to gain recognition for their success due to the necessity of selectivity in acknowledging students for success. Moreover, though we may see their many positive attributes, their peers may not appreciate these as we do.

Recently there has been notable push-back against the trophy-for-everyone culture for children. Some have lamented the downside to adults who never experienced failure as children. But even for those of us who agree with these positions and value the lessons taught to our children by their failures, it can still be very difficult to watch our children fail.
Last week we had a family adventure to a nearby park with an enormous turtle population. Our kids had brought their nets, in the hopes that they might catch something - a frog, a turtle, a fish, a crayfish, or maybe just a butterfly. Our oldest was particularly determined to catch a turtle. There was no shortage of turtles, but they were all far out on fallen trees extending into the murky water. Hence she decided to make her way out onto one of these logs. Her first attempt was an amazing feat of balance and fearlessness, as she ultimately walked across the entire river on a log in flip-flops. The turtles seemed unhappy with the tremors in their sunning spot and plopped off, one by one, until there were none left to catch. Unwilling to turn around and walk all the way back, she attempted the five foot leap onto shore from the tree and ended up quite wet.

Her determination continued as she sought out a different fallen tree with almost 20 turtles on it. This time she decided to crawl out slowly, with her sister following. Twice she had her net positioned for a catch, and twice the turtles evaded her skill. By this time, her dad and siblings had headed for the playground. She was stubborn, and so was I. I wanted her to succeed. I wanted her to see the result of her patience and determination and bravery. I wanted to witness her joy at fulfilling her goal. I even prayed for her to get to the last remaining turtle on the log. Time stretched beyond the five minutes we had said we would stay, as I watched her sit completely still on the tree, waiting for a turtle to decide the sunny spot was once more available and return within her reach. 

Eventually, I had to let her fail. The lesson: even with skill, patience, determination, courage, fortitude, wet pants, and a bright orange net, we cannot always achieve our goals. That was her lesson.

My lesson was similar. Even with our good intentions and good efforts as parents, we cannot guarantee our children's success. It makes sense that we are disappointed when our children fail, even when we can narrate it positively in light of how it will benefit them in the future.

Sometimes our children's failures can be more painful to us than our own failures. We feel their disappointment acutely, suffering with them and sharing their regrets. We want to insert ourselves into difficult situations, compensating for their hurt feelings when insulted by a friend or reassuring them that last place in an exhibition swimming race can still be a good performance. Furthermore, it can be embarrassing to us when our kids fail a spelling test or score a goal for the opposite team. We may want to make excuses for them or pretend we don't notice their failures. 

The discomfort caused by our children's failures can become a great parenting mortification. It is a way in which we can die to ourselves, recognizing our own lack of control of various situations. When we embrace their failures and our own corresponding disappointment, we acknowledge our own powerlessness and dependence on God. These failures of our children may or may not be reflections of our own effort (or lack thereof), but regardless, our children's failures can bring us and them closer to God, as we acknowledge the disappointment and unite it to Christ's sufferings, remembering that redemption does not come primarily through us and our virtues, no matter how heroic.

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