Why children need to make mistakes

Making mistakes is important for growing kids into resilient adults.
Making mistakes is important for growing kids into resilient adults. 

Thirteen years ago, when I was a relatively new high school teacher, stumbling around my classroom on wobbly legs, I had to call a student's mother to inform her that I would be initiating disciplinary proceedings against her daughter for plagiarism, and that, furthermore, her daughter would receive a zero for the plagiarised paper.

"You can't do that. She didn't do anything wrong," the mother informed me, enraged.

"But she did. I was able to find entire paragraphs lifted from websites," I stammered.

"No, I mean she didn't do it," replied the mother. "I did. I wrote her paper."

I don't remember what I said in response, but I'm fairly confident I had to take a moment to digest what I had just heard.

And what could I do, anyway? Suspend the mother? Keep her in for lunch detention and make her write, "I will not write my daughter's papers using articles plagiarised from the internet", 100 times on the blackboard? In all fairness, the mother submitted a defence: her daughter had been stressed out and she did not want her to get sick or overwhelmed.

In the end, my student received a zero and I made sure she rewrote the paper. Herself.

Sure, I didn't have the authority to discipline the student's mother, but I have done so many times in my dreams.

While I am not sure what the mother gained from the experience, the daughter gained an understanding of consequences and I gained a war story. I don't even bother with the old reliables any more: the mother who "helps" a bit too much with the child's maths homework, the father who builds the student's science project. Please. Don't waste my time.

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The stories teachers exchange these days reveal a whole new level of overprotectiveness: parents who raise their children in a state of helplessness and powerlessness, children destined for an anxious adulthood, lacking the emotional resources required to cope with inevitable setback and failure.

I believed my accumulated compendium of teacher war stories was pretty good - until I read a Queensland University of Technology study titled, "Can a parent do too much for their child? An examination by parenting professionals of the concept of overparenting."

Overparenting is characterised in the study as parents' "misguided attempt to improve their child's current and future personal and academic success". Some of the examples are the usual fare: a child isn't allowed to go to camp or learn to drive, a parent cuts up a 10-year-old's food or brings separate plates to parties for a 16-year-old because he's a picky eater. Yawn. These barely rank a "Tsk, tsk" among my colleagues. And while I pity those kids, I'm not that worried. They will go out on their own some day and recover from their overprotective childhoods.

What worries me most are the examples of overparenting that have the potential to ruin a child's confidence and undermine an education in independence. According to the study, parents guilty of this kind of overparenting "take their child's perception as truth, regardless of the facts", and are "quick to believe their child over the adult and deny the possibility that their child was at fault or would even do something of that nature".

This is what we teachers see most often: what the authors term "high responsiveness and low demandingness parents". These parents are highly responsive to the perceived needs and issues of their children, and don't give their children the chance to solve their own problems.

These parents "rush to school at the whim of a phone call from their child to deliver items such as forgotten lunches, forgotten assignments, forgotten uniforms" and "demand better grades on the final semester reports or threaten withdrawal from school".

One study participant described the problem this way: "I have worked with quite a number of parents who are so overprotective of their children that the children do not learn to take responsibility (and the natural consequences) for their actions. The children may develop a sense of entitlement and the parents then find it difficult to work with the school in a trusting, co-operative and solution- focused manner, which would benefit both child and school."

These are the parents who worry me the most - parents who won't let their child learn.

You see, teachers don't just teach reading, writing and arithmetic. We also teach responsibility, organisation, manners, restraint and foresight. These skills may not get assessed on standardised testing, but as children plot their journey into adulthood, they are, by far, the most important life skills I teach.

I'm not suggesting that parents place blind trust in their children's teachers; I would never do such a thing myself. But children make mistakes, and when they do, it's vital that parents remember that the educational benefits of consequences are a gift, not a dereliction of duty.

Year after year, my "best" students - the ones who are happiest and successful in their lives - are the students who were allowed to fail, held responsible for missteps and who were challenged to be the best people they could be in the face of their mistakes.

I'm done fantasising about ways to make that mother from 13 years ago see the light. That ship has sailed and I did the best I could for her daughter. Every year, I reassure some parent, "This setback will be the best thing that ever happened to your child", and I've long since accepted that most parents won't believe me.

That's fine. I'm patient. The lessons I teach in school typically don't pay off for years, and I don't expect thank-you cards.

I have learnt to enjoy and find satisfaction in these day-to-day lessons and in the time I get to spend with children in need of an education. But I fantasise about the day I will be trusted to teach my students how to roll with the punches, run their way through the gauntlet of adolescence and stand firm in the face of challenges - challenges that have the power to transform today's children into resourceful, competent and confident adults.

Ben Snaders/the jacky winter group. edited version of an article first published in the atlantic