What If She Fails?

Often I meet with parents who are very worried about their children’s achievement, usually in school, but sometimes in sports as well.  These are well-meaning parents who want the best for their children.  They want them to have the best opportunities, and they want their children to have accomplishments that they can feel proud about.

Unfortunately, parents’ anxiety about achievement can backfire on them.  This is when they might show up in my office. The pressure to achieve for the sake of achieving can take the joy out of learning.  It can obscure the individuality of the child and hide his or her passion.

I am not talking about parents who expect their children to put their best effort into homework and to study for tests and quizzes.  I am also not talking about parents who practice ball handling skills with their kids and cheer them on at the soccer game.  That is your responsibility as a parent, and it teaches your child responsibility as well.

Many of the children I see live in fairly affluent communities outside of Boston.  There is quite a bit of peer pressure among parents to do the best they can for their children.  The belief is that if children are very successful that they will be truly happy.  It is difficult to resist the pressure that parents feel at the soccer field or at the PTO.  One hears, “We signed Derek up for individual coaching so that his hockey game will improve.  He has to get up at six am on Thursday to meet before school, but he knows it’s important.”  Or one might hear, “We don’t feel that the math curriculum is adequate, so Jenny is going to extra math classes twice a week.”  These are children who are doing fine in school or in sports, but their parents feel the need to “enrich” their lives with extra classes or coaching.

A few parents I know ask, “Where is the fun in this?”  If your child truly loves baseball and has talent, by all means take her to the batting cage on the weekend.  While you are there, make sure that you have fun.  If your child does not have the aptitude for sports that require good hand-eye coordination, encourage her to try out swimming or track.  Sports are very good for exercise, learning to work with a team, and having the experience of pride in accomplishment.  It is important to keep them in perspective as one part of life, though.

Some parents who are very worried about academic achievement find that their children begin to resist the pressure to do better and better.  An anxious parent can forget to praise the B’s and A’s and focus only on the C’s.  This decreases motivation and leads to resentment.  It is important to accept your child for who he is.  If he consistently achieves below the level of his ability, you should talk to people at school.  Perhaps a learning disability is becoming a factor, and the school should do some testing.  Perhaps he was able to do the work in the early grades, but interference from Attention Deficit Disorder is getting in his way in the middle grades.  When parents explore these considerations, children feel understood.

In my experience children do well when their parents can accept them for who they are and encourage them to do their best.  Children benefit from balance in their lives.  They need to go to school and do their work, play sports if they like them, hang out with friends in unstructured setting (like your family room), hang out with you, and have time for solitary pursuits like reading or crafts.  They need room to find activities they love, like music or drama.  But they need space in their lives to just hang out.  Having faith in your child’s ability to be responsible and do well communicates good will toward her and increases her self-esteem.

I would be very interested to hear others’ opinions on this topic.  Do you feel pressure from other parents to involve your children in many activities?  Do you get very anxious when your child has difficulty in a subject?  Do you think I’m off base?  Let me know.


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Photo credit:  Slabcity Gang on Flickr


12 Responses to “What If She Fails?”
  1. I think this post is right on target about the anxiety parents have about their kids and failure. I think actually one of the things we need to ask parents is what if she never fails? Because failure is a chance to learn about resilience and recovery. I am not suggesting not helping kids do their best, I just think all this catastrophic thinking about what one individual failure means is making parents stressed out. Also I think it helps to take the long view… when we look at very accomplished adults, often they faced some adversity or obstacle as a young person and found that they had the inner strength and outer support to keep trying.
    Great post. Thanks! Allison

  2. dr.cstone says:

    Dear Allison,
    I love what you say about the long view. It’s so helpful to be able to see that difficult children grow up to be competent adults–not always, but often. And allowing children to experience some difficulty is also very important. Recently a colleague introduced me to the the books of Wendy Mogel, The Blessing of the Skinned Knee and The Blessing of a B minus. She makes this point quite eloquently.

  3. Hi Carolyn – When my son was young, I was an inexperienced parent, and I felt pressure. As I grew as a parent, I realized who my child was for himself and I just let him do what he wanted to do. We were all happier. I dont understand why people want to run around and go to tons of games all week & weekend….glad I didnt and dont!

  4. Carolyn,

    As my daughter enters school, I have noticed this phenomenon. We have had pretty limited activities for our kids as pre-schoolers, partly because we wanted flexibility in our family scheduling and largely because we want our children to have a mostly unstructured childhood. I strongly agree with Allison–there is so much value for our kids in learning how to endure and learn from failure. No one goes through life without failing, and it’s best to learn those coping skills in childhood, so that when you struggle at a job or in a relationship, you have the tools you need.


  5. My husband and I chose to buy a house in a different part of the city from where we were living because of the pressure parents seemed to feel about enrolling their kids in tons and tons of activities and lessons. It seems to be more laid-back here, but I suppose we won’t really know until our daughter gets into school. My parents did a great job of letting us kids try a bunch of different activities and encouraging us to excel in what we enjoyed, but not to the extent that we didn’t have time for other things. I’m hoping to follow in their footsteps.

  6. Dr. Deborah Solomon says:

    I quite agree. Professionally I see late adolescents that polarize with parents over this, when they might otherwise be taking more responsibility and getting excited for their futures. But personally, I am often in struggle with the SCHOOLS re: letting my 12 yo be 12, rather than focusing on high school and college, and knowing current grade-to-date in each class rather than knowing the material. Schools play a role in this pressure too.

  7. dr.cstone says:

    Hi Deborah,
    Thanks so much for your comment. I really agree that schools play a part in this. Every spring I meet with some child who is worried about high school because a teacher has warned, “This work won’t be acceptable in high school,” when the child is still in middle school. I guess it’s hard for everyone, teachers as well, to stay in the moment.

  8. dr.cstone says:

    Hi Kathy,
    I agree life is easier once we can accept our children for and ourselves just as they and we are. Tough call in competitive communities. I know that parents who are very influenced by the competition are often most unsure of their parenting. It’s tough. Thanks for commenting–I know you’re super busy!

  9. dr.cstone says:

    Dear Rachelle,
    Thanks for your comment. It sounds as though your parents set a good example, and that will be very helpful to you. And you have already taken a big step in choosing your neighborhood. I sure hope it works out for you. I agree it’s important to let kids try things and hopefully they find something they love.

  10. dr.cstone says:

    Dear Ann,
    Thanks for your comment. You and Allison have expressed something that people rarely hear–how valuable it is to learn to cope with failure when you are young. Very wise. Thank you.

  11. Dear Carolyn,

    You make some really good points about the impact of academic pressure on our children.

    My daughter was a perfectionist who put a lot of pressure on herself. When she was in high school, we would tell her to stop studying and go to the party, etc. Now she is finishing college and she is much better at balancing work and play and she tries not to put as much pressure on herself.

    To add to the comments about learning from our failures, there are two role models for persisting despite failures that I like to share with my clients who feel like giving up. The first is Thomas Edison, who was asked what it was like to fail 1000 times when he was trying to invent the lightbulb. He said he didn’t fail; he discovered 1000 ways that didn’t work.

    The other story is about a politician who was defeated in every election he ran in including the senatorial election of ’54, the vice-presidency in ’56, and the senatorial election of ’58. If he had given up, then Abraham Lincoln would not have become the 16th President of the United States in 1860.

    All my best,

  12. dr.cstone says:

    Dear Andrea,
    Thanks for your comment. I think that this post has drawn the most feedback of any I’ve written in the past year! It really resonates with people. I’m glad that your daughter has learned more about balance–it often takes into college for people to learn to take charge in that way–they need that frontal lobe developed.
    I really like your examples for not giving up, especially Edison saying he learned 1000 ways it didn’t work. Negative information is still information.