How an 8th grade fundraiser reminded me not to over-parent, intervene, or try to prevent my children from failing.
You may know (or you may not) that I write a parenting newsletter. It's based on my observations as a parent and teacher. As the father of five I seem to have made almost every mistake one can, although, I manage to devise completely new mistakes with subsequent children. And in the rare cases where I didn't make the mistake personally, I have likely seen another parent make it in my career as an educator. I decided someone should benefit from all those mistakes. Hence the newsletter.
I wrote the following piece for the newsletter, but it is an important enough issue that I thought I would share it with a wider audience as well. If you wish to sign up for the newsletter you may do so here. This is an experience I had that reminded me how important it was to let kids take risks and fail without intervention.
Earlier this year some of my students had a really bad idea for a special initiative. It was obviously going to be a colossal failure. I was tempted to intervene and stop them, but decided instead to let them learn a lesson from their imminent failure.
One of my responsibilities at school is serving as the advisor for a committee of eighth students charged with raising money. The funds they raise pay for various items, including a gift the graduating class gives back to the school. The work of this committee is challenging and it keeps us all very busy, trying to raise the needed funds.
Even more challenging is the fact that this committee is specifically designed as a leadership opportunity for eighth graders. Thus, while the immediate goal is to raise money, the overarching objective is to help develop leaders.
Additionally, the committee changes each year as students graduate and move on. Consequently, every year brings a new learning curve and one of my main responsibilities is finding a diplomatic way of helping them re-think a problematic ideas, or guiding them to see that something is impractical or unworkable.
A few months back the students had a new fundraising idea. With my greater understanding and experience, I knew at once that it would not work. I tried to nudge my committee away from the idea, but they were very determined to try. Since it wasn’t dangerous, illegal, unethical or otherwise problematic I finally approved it. While I knew it would be a dismal fundraising failure, I hoped they might learn some good lessons.
I sat back and waited, making mental notes on a speech to deliver when the results bombed. With gentle sympathy in my voice, I planned to say something like, “I’m so sorry this didn’t work the way you thought it would. I am proud of you for trying and glad you were willing to think out of the box. I imagine there are some good lessons we can draw.”
I imagined a wonderful teaching moment. With sympathy and a bit of wry humor I’d leave them humbled but hopeful. I was imagining Atticus Finch mixed with Mother Theresa with a touch of Andy Griffith thrown in.
To my astonishment—and that of most other adults—the fundraising idea succeeded beyond anything I would have ever imagined. We made significantly more with this fundraiser than we had with several other fundraisers combined.
I later told my boss that I was giving myself the speech I’d prepared for the students, telling myself this was a great opportunity to draw some good lessons. He told me he was doing the same.
There has been a lot written recently about how important it is not to over-parent, to not intervene and solve every problem. In order to grow, kids need to experience struggle and even failure. I believe that very much. We rob our children of future strength when we intervene, organizing and directing every aspect of their lives.
But this experience reminded me of another reason not to intervene: we actually don’t know everything. While this particular initiative worked out well, a lot of other ideas over the years did fail, and there were times I was correct in my forecast. The trick, however, is that one can’t know when the wonderful surprise success will come. Sometimes our intervention will not prevent the failure or disappointment; it may actually cause it. Had I followed my impulse, this would have been the case with my committee.
Adult intervention to prevent failure and struggle can be problematic because it may also prevent adolescents from experiencing truly amazing success.
This experience reminded me that one of the best things I can to help my own children succeed is to give them the freedom to try, fail, and solve their own problems. Not intervening (unless there is serious danger) can be unsettling. It can feel like cutting the safety rope that keeps them from falling. But that rope can also be a tether, keeping them from reaching their fullest potential. By giving them the opportunity to fail, I allow them to learn important lessons when they fall. But I’m also freeing them to soar to far greater heights than I had imagined.
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