Helping Parents Navigate The Obstacle Course That Is Childhood

Picture yourself as an adventurous kid standing in front of the most stupendous and death-defying obstacle course ever invented.  It’s several stories off the ground with high-flying rope walks, a climbing section with only-somewhat-sturdy rope-ladders, and a 10-foot section with moving wooden planks to traverse. It’s both awesome and terrifying at the same time.  And there’s a guide to ensure your safe completion of the course and to talk you through the rough parts.  You can’t wait to start the course. 

Now imagine your disappointment when your mother shows up, berating the guide about the safety of the course, wrapping the sharp edges and rough spots with bubble-wrap, and demanding you wear a helmet, knee pads, shoulder pads, wrist pads, and every article of thick clothing you have for cushioning in case you fall.  The excitement that once your spirit just a few seconds ago has evaporated. And now you’re probably doubting whether you should try to do the course at all.  The ultimate buzzkill.  

Well, that’s what we as parents are doing to our children’s experience of childhood.  Our overparenting is, in essence, removing all of the sharp edges of being a kid, flattening out what should be rocky terrain, and baby-proofing everything that is, or could be considered, dangerous.   That’s the premise of Jessica Lahey’s book, “The Gift of Failure”.  The book makes the case that this flattening out of the obstacle course that should be childhood is doing a disservice to our children. 

The author states “out of love and desire to protect our children’s self-esteem, we have bulldozed every uncomfortable bump and obstacle out of their way, clearing the manicured path we hoped would lead to success and happiness.  Unfortunately, in doing so, we have deprived our children of the most important lessons of childhood.  The setbacks, mistakes, miscalculations, and failures we have shoved out of our children’s way are the very experiences that teach them how to be resourceful, persistent, innovative, and resilient citizens in this world”.  

The book is a well-written treatise on the pitfalls of helicopter-parenting.  In it, Lahey states “every time we rescue, hover, or otherwise save our children from a challenge, we send a very clear message: that we believe they are incompetent, incapable, and unworthy of our trust.  Further, we teach them to be dependent on us and thereby deny them the very education in competence we are put here on this earth to hand down”.  She advocates not for relinquishing our parental duties, but instead for supporting our children’s autonomy.  Not parenting for our own needs,  but for the long-term success of our children. And it was a compelling read that I highly recommend to all parents, and especially those of middle-schoolers and high-schoolers.  I learned a great deal about myself and about parenting while reading it.  

What makes this book special?

I recommend this book because the author makes a logical case for the negative impacts of overparenting, while incorporating several personal examples that are easy to relate to along the way.  Because this is a subject that I sometimes struggle with, I found the book compelling from the very first page.  But I have to admit that when I started reading it, I was pitying all of those other parents who are guilty of overparenting their kids.  Why don’t they get it?  I was pretty confident that I was not really one of “those” moms.  Did I have some improvements to make? Of course! But I wasn’t really overparenting them.  I mean, I drop off my kids’ forgotten lunches and homework at school, but only when they ask me to.  And I never do their homework for them (although I do oversee their diligent completion of every problem).  So she couldn’t really be talking about me, right?

She described her struggle to relinquish the tying of son’s shoes to her third-grade son, and I could identify.  Her son, like my son, was happy to have her tie his shoe instead of learning how to do it himself.  And she was happy to oblige.  Until she realized that “for every time I tied his shoes, rather than teach him to do it himself, I reinforced his perception that I believed the task was too hard for him”.  I thought of all the ways I’d been tying his shoes (or making his lunches or cleaning his room) instead of teaching him to do it himself.  Let’s just say there were several things that I should be relinquishing.   

Then I came to the following line:

“I feel good when my children are safe, warm and fed, of course, but what really feels good, what makes me feel like an A-plus parent, is when I show my kids I love them by rescuing them from disappointment”.   

That hit home and instantly I realized that I was suffering from the overparenting bug just like everyone else.  I, too, feel good when I rescue my kids from disappointment.  When I buy batteries for my daughter’s calculator so that she won’t have to suffer through a class with a dead calculator (how could she live that down?).  When I wash and iron my son’s school shirt the night before he needs it (imagine his surprise and gratitude when he sees it!). When I clean out his soccer bag the night before his game and fill it with gatorade and the necessary gear (how could he ever live without me?).  When I tidy up her room before she brings home a friend so that she won’t have to explain how her room got so messy (they’ll think I’m the best mom ever!).  All things that made me feel like an A+ mom, but all things that were robbing my kids of the valuable lesson of responsibility.  And I realized that I was doing those things not for them, but for me.  I was doing these things so that I could say, as Lahey so elegantly put it, “yes, I am a good parent today”.   

And I realized I needed more help that I originally thought.  So on I read. 

The book has several guiding principles:

1. Our goal should be to facilitate intrinsic motivation.  

Lahey makes the case that, instead of relying on parent-generated, external (or extrinsic) motivation, children should engage in academic and extracurricular activities because of the fun and enjoyment they get from the activity. Because of the internal, or intrinsic, rewards that they receive.  Otherwise, research has shown that external motivations are perceived as external controls, and those controls disrupt the intrinsic reward.  

What does that mean? Well, if they find enjoyment in an activity, they’ll stick with it and will persevere when it gets hard.  If they are motivated by rewards, bribes, praise, cajoling, or external pressure, then the activity will eventually lose its intrinsic reward and kids will no longer want to participate.  “Just about anything humans perceive as controlling is detrimental to long-term motivation, and therefore learning”.  So if we push them to do it, they will lose their enjoyment in it and probably won’t want to do it for very long.  

Then how do we cajole our children into engaging in activities that they don’t want to do, like homework or piano practice?  The author suggests we establish nonnegotiable expectations, and then give them autonomy over where, when and how things are done.  If the expectation is met, the details of how it gets done are up to the kid. It’s only when the expectation isn’t met (such as when homework isn’t done completely or on-time) that we should start to assert some external control.  

What does this mean for those of us who use extrinsic rewards as positive reinforcement, like giving money for good grades? My parents gave me and my brothers $20 for each A at report card time, and we have similarly rewarded our children for good grades.  As a child, I loved this because it was an effortless way to make money.  But then I realized that it was effortless.  And it was effortless because I wasn’t motivated by the money. I studied hard and did extra problems because I liked school and wanted to get good grades.  I was intrinsically motivated to get the best grades that I could, and the money was just a bonus.  So their extrinsic rewards were unnecessary because I would have achieved High Honor Roll without them.  (But I have to admit that the rewards did help support my burgeoning Guess jeans collection.)

What about those kids who aren’t intrinsically motivated to do well?  Will extrinsic rewards work for them? Research says it will, but only for a short time.  “Rewards work for repetitive, uncomplicated or boring tasks, but when it comes to creativity and nuanced learning, they are lousy motivators”.  Why? Because kids will do the tasks for a limited amount of time, but not for long.  And extrinsic rewards will not foster intrinsic rewards, meaning giving kids rewards won’t cause them to find enjoyment in doing the activity.

I can attest to this observation.  I was “encouraged” to play the piano as a child, and I played it everyday from the age of 5 until the day I graduated from high school.  I didn’t like playing the piano, but my parents believed that playing a musical instrument provided unique educational and social benefits.  So I was strongly “encouraged” to play, and I did so obediently for 12 years.  You would think their extrinsic motivation worked, right? I guess it did technically, because I did play the piano dutifully for 12 years.  But I quit the very day I graduated from high school, and I’ve barely tickled the ivory since then. So their extrinsic motivation didn’t foster a long-term love of piano-playing. 

When I think about my own childhood, extrinsic rewards don’t seem to have had an effect.  I would have achieved High Honor Roll without the cash incentives, and I still hate playing the piano.  I’m not sure what this will mean in terms of giving our children money for grades. But I can say that we’ll continue to tie their allowances to the cleaning of their rooms.  The author did say that “rewards work for repetitive, uncomplicated or boring tasks”, and we’ve found that to be the most dependable way to get our kids to make their beds and clean their rooms.   

What can parents do to promote intrinsic motivation? Back off. The author believes parents should “allow kids to have the control and autonomy they crave even if it means struggling with the task or situation at hand”.  So we should provide boundaries but allow, and even suggest, our kids take the wheel within those boundaries.  Allowing them to be in control is the best way to get them to motivate themselves.  

2. Competence requires both ability and experience. 

The author makes the point that children must have both the aptitude to do a task, as well as the experience of doing it, to truly become competent.  What does that mean? Let me give you an example.  

Our son plays soccer, and for years I prepared his bag and laid out his uniform before each game.  I legitimized this act of overparenting by telling myself, “isn’t this why I stopped working? to provide this kind of help to our kids? and this way I know everything is packed and he won’t show up at the game missing his cleats or socks. added bonus!”  So I thought I was really helping him and myself at the same time.  But this logic only made sense to me because I was confident that my son knew how to pack his own bag, but he was so busy with school and life that I could/should do that one little task for him.  He had the ability, but why make him do it when he was so busy? 

I’ll admit that reading that statement now makes me seem crazy. Even I think I sound crazy! How was he more busy that I was?!?  But back then it made sense. #woefullymisguided.  #no12yearoldisthatbusy. But I digress.

The problem arose when he grew so comfortable with me doing it for him that he didn’t want to do it for himself.  That was undoubtedly a consequence of my actions, because he likely perceived my help as my belief that he couldn’t do his bag himself correctly.  So my help became a detriment to his self-confidence.  At the same time, he didn’t appreciate what I was doing for him.  How could he, when he had no concept of what was entailed in preparing his own bag?  I found myself getting upset when he seemed disinterested in doing this simple act for himself, and didn’t appreciate the effort I was putting in for him.  He didn’t even thank me for making sure both his home and away uniforms were clean, or for purchasing his favorite flavor of gatorade! How could I have raised such a misguided child! 

I didn’t realize the error of my ways until I read this book.  Not only was I undermining his independence, but I was also setting myself up for disappointment and resentment. And why? Not because he couldn’t do it, but because I was fulfilling my image of “A-plus mom” and because I wanted his bag packed a certain way.  

I now know that he would never feel confident in his ability to pack his own bag if I didn’t let him do it himself.  What I should have done, and what I do now, is remind him to pack his bag.  Period.  

That’s the idea behind competence requiring both ability and experience.  Was my son smart enough to pack his own bag? Of course.  But how could he become competent at doing it (and remembering to pack everything he needed) if he didn’t go through the act of packing it for himself? Would he forget a sock or a cleat sometimes? Probably.  But that’s what life is about, and he would learn to create a back-up plan to make sure that didn’t happen again.  

Our children’s lives are like packing a soccer bag.  It’s not enough that they know how to do it; they have to be able to do it themselves and know they’ll be able to deal with any mistakes that arise.  And sometimes that means forgetting a shin guard and having to use cardboard instead (believe me, it’s happened).   But now I realize that knowing my son can in theory pack his bag is not as good as allowing him to pack his own bag.  

3. Less parenting is really more parenting

The author, like me, had been guilty of dropping off forgotten assignments and lunches at school.  But then she realized that she was doing her children a disservice, and she vowed not do that again.  She relays the details of struggling with this decision after her youngest son left his homework at home one morning.  And her example hit home for me.  

When I worked full-time, I never would have contemplated dropping off homework or lunches at school.  Who had time for that anyway when working? But when I stopped working, that tough-love line became fuzzier and fuzzier.  Who can resist when your fourth-grade daughter calls you from school begging you to bring in the running shoes she forgot at home so that she can participate in gym? Or when your sixth-grader asks you to drop off the assignment that he spent several hours on but mistakenly left on the kitchen table?  Weren’t they showing responsibility by even calling to ask? And everyone forgets something once in a while, right? How could I say no? 

But she points out that rescuing them is not the same as helping them.  If our goal is to raise autonomous, competent children, everything we do should be to that end.  And if we rescue them when they forget something, is that teaching them autonomy or dependence? 

A longer-term strategy is to let them deal with the repercussions of a forgotten homework so that they create strategies to remember their homework the next time.  Rescuing them doesn’t motivate them to create those strategies.  

Instead of bringing her son his forgotten homework, the author had fresh-baked cookies waiting when he got home.  She asked him how his day was and discussed the repercussions of his forgotten homework. “All the love, none of the rescuing”, she writes.  And I vowed to remember that example the next time I got that call from school asking for something left at home.  

What’s the take-home?

After reading the book, I realized that the childhood she was describing was really like an obstacle course.  My family and I did such a course two summers ago on our summer vacation.  It was an Aerial Assault course, and it was the most terrifying thing I’ve ever willfully done in my life.  The course itself was about 4-stories above the ground, and it had several sections, all varying in degrees of wobbly-ness and all meant to test you physically and mentally.  I originally had no intention of doing the course, but when we realized how high up it was, we felt remiss as parents to let the kids do it alone.  So we stepped up and all four of us did it together.  We cried, cajoled, threatened, encouraged, and willed each other through the course.   And although I don’t think I’d ever do it again, I have to admit that the euphoria and pride that we felt when it was over is unrivaled.  Each of us felt like we could’ve conquered the world at that moment.  

When I realized that the childhood that Jessica Lahey was describing was akin to that obstacle course, I had to admit that I, in fact, had been smoothing out the rough parts of my children’s lives in ways that were counterproductive and unnecessary.  I was smoothing out the tough spots and rough patches, paving a road that should be left pot-holed and uneven, when instead I should be a course guide who provides safety tips and encouragement while helping to guide them through the rough patches.  

I’m trying to turn over a new leaf.  I now ask myself, “should I be doing this? Is this helping them become independent or dependent?”  And sometimes I don’t realize the folly of my actions until after I’ve over-helped them.  But that’s ok, because then I vow not to make that mistake again, I explain to my kids why my actions will be different in the future, and I gently reorient my internal compass toward my ultimate goal: raising two competent, independent, autonomous and joyous kids.