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HomeFamilyParenting AdviceParenting differences on kids’ success and failure — Good Parenting

Parenting differences on kids’ success and failure — Good Parenting

Dear Dr. Debbie,

My husband and I seem to be at opposite poles when it comes to letting our children learn from mistakes. For example, if our middle schooler doesn’t get himself to the bus stop on time, I’m willing (not eager) to drive him to school. It only happens about once or twice a month. My husband thinks there should be some consequence, such as reimbursing me for my time and gas. We also have a preschooler. She tries to be helpful, such as wanting to carry a hot casserole to the dinner table. I put oven mitts on her and walk with her to assure there are no accidents. My husband has no patience for this and will bring her to tears telling her she can’t do something when she wants to help.

I see his actions as treating the children as if they must be perfect. Either there’s a harsh consequence for failing, or he prevents them from even trying something that may be challenging. As a mom, I see my role as assisting when a child needs help and also encouraging them to try even though something may be difficult. This is probably a male-female difference in our parenting, but I’m wondering if we can somehow get on the same page about letting failure have a place in our children’s lives.

Just Being a Mom

Don’t miss last week’s column Does my baby have colic? — Good Parenting

Dear Mom,

There are brain-based differences between typical male and female parenting approaches despite the contemporary trend toward neutrality. While both mothers and fathers want to teach and protect, males may have higher expectations for not making mistakes and not needing help. Men, typically, are action-oriented. Fix a problem (or avoid a disaster) by taking immediate action. Fathers often report their parents were sterner with them than they were with their sisters. Not too many generations back, girls and women were expected to live under a man’s protection and financial support, therefore fathers, especially, were tougher on their sons and overprotective of their daughters. Also female brains, generally, are more adept at tuning in to children’s emotions and to have relationship goals that direct them to be less stern than fathers. A woman understands that the child she nurtures today will not only nurture her grandchildren, but may someday be taking care of her in her old age. A lift to middle school when he misses the bus pays off when someday she may need a ride to the gerontologist.

Let’s aim to bring you and Dad closer on your approaches toward encouragement and support while leaving room for the children to make mistakes and learn from them.

Developmental Steps

There are stages in which a child wants to do more for himself and others, and stages in which he needs lots of assurances that he has parents who will go that extra mile if he needs it. Your preschooler is at the “by myself” stage. This is the time to welcome her contributions for domestic chores, even if it takes longer to get things done. This is an investment in her ability to take on responsibilities, eventually preparing her to tend a home of her own. To see if your child is at a stage in which a quest for independence would warrant more risk-taking (and therefor the child’s increased endurance of failure), check out descriptions of each age by the well-respected authority, the Gesell Institute.

Middle school is often an unsettled transition during which a child has one foot in the security of his parents’ unconditional love and the other in the rocky waters of early adolescence. In elementary school he was used to having art every Tuesday but now he copes with a schedule that shifts every three school days regardless of the calendar. Teachers place heavier expectations on students to be prepared for class and to pace themselves for long term assignments. Popularity is a cruel game in middle school. You’re in one day and out the next. During this stage, a parent’s unconditional support – willing to run him to the library at 8:45 p.m. or to stay up to unload the drier with the next day’s outfit – is proof of your unwavering commitment to his best interests.

Individual Differences

Beyond the predictable stages of independence and dependence, each child also has a unique personality. Inborn temperament traits and life experiences shape our ability to weather the storms of childhood and later life as well. You may need to adjust your parenting to suit a more sensitive, cautious child versus a go-getter who dusts herself off and climbs right back on that horse. As you apply different strategies for each child — saving him from failure or stepping back to prove he can handle it — you are teaching the child the way to approach challenges in the future. One size does not fit all.

Help is Here

The cautious child never strays too far from support. This serves him well, reducing anxiety as well as solving whatever need he is experiencing. Over time, you can teach him some strategies to solve different problems, including research, peer help and going back to the person who presented the problem to get clues for solving it. Show him how to use the library and internet, how to use classmates for some of his schoolwork and social challenges, and how to best approach a teacher for help (he can compose an email or voicemail with you, or accompany you to an arranged meeting). When he’s on his own, these strategies for finding and using help will serve him well.

Failures Reveal Persistence

You probably have real-life tales of your own about how struggling through failure after failure was part of the path to success. If it’s not working, try a different way to go. Walt Disney was fired by a newspaper because he “lacked imagination and had no good ideas.” He changed course, and drove himself and his crews to be ready for 100,000 guests for opening day at his family-friendly amusement park, but only 10,000 showed up. Thomas Alva Edison concluded that each of the over 500 unsuccessful trials to light up a filament in a vacuum tube were necessary steps toward ultimately achieving this goal. Fortunately for everyone who has benefitted from light bulbs, he was never discouraged during the process. Abraham Lincoln lost eight elections along the road to his presidency, with a re-election during the stormiest time in our country’s history. To have the confidence of a majority of voters was undoubtedly a hard-won triumph. These and other heroes of enormous accomplishment can be viewed as superb models of enduring failure.

Mistakes Can Be Discoveries

Some “failures” are excellent learning opportunities. A competent cook has often not just salvaged a meal following a culinary disaster, but managed to triumph with an innovation. Here are some tasty examples. Your child, too, can make the best of what didn’t turn out as he or she expected, and in the process gain confidence to risk failure in the future.

None of us is perfect, not even as parents. Try this proverb on your husband: “If you don’t make mistakes, you don’t make anything.”

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com

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