Letting Our Children Fail

Note: On on January 11, 2009 I began facilitating a parenting class for DaySpring, the church I attend in Waco.  I’m going to be offering some of what I’m doing there in this space over the Spring.

Last week we watched most of Foster Cline’s video, “Daring to Parent in the Nineties,” and it was enjoyed by everyone.  We’ll be watching the last 10 minutes this morning, and then I’ll be asking two questions:

  1. What are we afraid would happen if we actually parented in the way Foster recommends?
  2. Just what sort of adults are we hoping to create anyway?

You can learn more about Foster’s approach to parenting by reading Parenting with Love and Logic.  This morning I’ll be reviewing a few central points he made in video that he also makes in the book.

Foster begins by noting that there is no approach to parenting that guarantees positive outcomes.  There are parents who appear to do everything “right,” and yet end up with a mess on their hands.  There are parents who appear to do everything “wrong,” and yet end up with responsible, productive children who become responsible, productive adults.  Foster says the best we can hope for is to tilt the odds in our favor.

Foster’s approach to tilting the odds begins with communicating three basic messages to our kids:

  1. I love you.
  2. If you have any questions, please ask.
  3. Good luck in life.

He then goes on to say that these messages are best embodied when we:

  1. Allow our children to learn how to take thoughtful risks by allowing them to fail.
  2. Model the behavior we hope to teach them, which mostly involves acting on our values and taking good care of ourselves.

Foster points out that the poor choices children make prior to adolescence are rarely devastating, while poor choices made in the teen years can indeed be traumatic, altering and limiting life in very painful ways.  So, it makes sense to let our kids learn about making choices and experiencing consequences when they are young.

Trouble is, we parents gets anxious… and we rescue.

If you’ve been following this blog, then you already know that I believe almost everything about life comes down to how we address, manage, and transform our anxiety.  This is as true with regards to how we parent as it is for anything in life.

You cannot teach your kids how to think, and how to take thoughtful risks unless you are willing to watch them hurt.  You cannot offer them the joy of succeeding if you are not willing to allow them the pain of failure.  And, when they are young, YOU will be enmeshed with that pain and failure in their little muddled heads.

When you “reposses” that CD player because Johnny failed to pay you back the money you lent him to buy it, then YOU will be the “bad guy.”  We each have to decide if its worth teaching Johnny that lesson in relationship to someone who loves him as opposed to having him learn it in relationship to the bank which is repossessing his first car. (And let me just note here that if Mom and Dad are not on the same page, these hard choices can become a source of deep conflict in the marriage.)

I’ve made passing references to Acceptance and Commitment Therapy in the class.  The ACT folks use the image of two inner “dials” with which we all contend.  One is the discomfort dial and the other is the willingness dial.  Mature people are able to turn up the willingness dial even with the discomfort dial is set uncomfortably high.  If we use this image in the context of parenting, the question becomes…

What do you notice about your ability to keep your hand on the willingness dial of effective parenting when your discomfort dial is going up as your child is working through pain and failure?




About Wes Eades

I've been a pastoral counselor, marital therapist, and overall listening ear since about 1989 or so.
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2 Responses to Letting Our Children Fail

  1. Peggy Thatcher says:

    “No approach that guarantees good outcomes”… Well, there are researched parenting methods that have an understanding of child development. L&L is not researched, although the website claim it is.

    L&L may have a few things right, but it is based on the notion that children learn everything by consequences which it claims is not punishment. Well, it is. And children learn by other means. An important one is parents discussing matters with the child.

    L&L’s snide one-liners are really creepy. Parents reciting over and over things like, “It would be nice to have a parent who cares,” is the parent abandoning the child, which could be especially disturbing to the young child.

    Google “Foster Cline” to see his connections to an abusive psychotherapy for children called “Rage Reduction.”

    • wmeades says:

      Thanks for your comments Peggy. A couple of quick thoughts… First, L&L assumes that parents are working in general to have a playful and loving relationship to their children. If parents are walking around with a lot of anger, either with their kids, or at life in general, then the one-liners do indeed become passive-aggressive and snide. I think Cline is pretty clear in saying a parent’s first responsibility is self care, and I understand this to mean, in part, taking responsibility for their own psychological and emotional health. Second, with regards to some of Cline’s more controversial techniques with severely attachment disordered kids, I can understand why his work is troubling to many. At the same time, I believe that Cline developed these approaches at a time when there were virtually no “successful” approaches to working with these kids. I’ve seen him as someone as attempting to find some sort of approach to helping a population that many have simply given up on.

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