The importance of failure

Let go: Kids need to learn to walk their own paths.
Let go: Kids need to learn to walk their own paths. Photo: Peter Braig

Last week in France, a 52-year-old mother took over-parenting to new heights. Donning Converse boots, skinny jeans and heavy makeup, she posed as her 19-year-old daughter and tried to sit the Baccalaureate English exam in her place. She got away with her deception for about 10 minutes, so all kudos to her. I'm 44 and I doubt that I could pass for 40. I was impressed.

I was also genuinely sad. How tragic for a mother to be so frightened of allowing her child to fail she would rather cheat to secure a sham success. And how damaging those actions will be for her daughter. We need failure to learn how to succeed. We need setbacks to learn to overcome.

By protecting her child from the normal disappointments of life - a poor Baccalaureate result, failure to get into university - her mother was stripping her of the opportunity to learn resilience. And we need resilience, perhaps more than any other life skill, because life throws all kind of problems at us and we have to be able to cop them on the chin.

Society, too, is to blame. The French school system is extreme. The Baccalaureate is notorious for its academic harshness. Students routinely are required to repeat years, and they report unusually high levels of stress and anxiety compared with their European counterparts.

The mother may have wanted to give her daughter an unfair advantage, but it is also possible she was motivated by a desire to ease her child's burden of anxiety.

Either way, however, she was protecting her child from failure. And this kind of parenting technique isn't unique to France. We Australians are hugely averse to allowing our kids to fail. Partly, of course, we just want to shield our kids from pain. Partly, we seem to confuse ''self-esteem'' with ''success'', and forget that true self-worth should be independent of achievement.

But partly, too, we parents are highly competitive, and gain our own sense of self-worth from our children. We are over-invested in our children because their failures and successes reflect on us. So we help our kids with their homework that bit too much so they (we) will get top marks. We give our normal children intensive after-school tutoring so they (we) can avoid the scourge of being average. We apply for special consideration during exams to get them extra credit so they (we) can get into university. Is it really such a giant leap to imagine cutting out the middle man and just sitting our kids' exams ourselves?

I have seen my kids struggle with their school work, and I know how distressing it can be. I have sat up late with a weeping child finishing an assignment that was a little too burdensome. And on occasion I have been tempted to finish it myself, just to make my child feel better and move on.

However, I stop myself, because I know it would be counter-productive. My kids need to deal with their problems themselves. I will be there to support them, and give them the help they need, but ultimately they need to walk their own paths. If I try to carry them, or hold their hands, or clear the paths before them, they will never learn to navigate without me.

Ultimately, the hardest part of parenting is letting our children go, but it is inevitable and necessary. We need to teach our kids resilience. Because one day we will no longer to be able to keep up with our kids. And we want them to be able to walk their bumpy paths. All on their own.

Twitter: @kerrisackville