It was called husky back then, but I was what I was: a fat boy who rarely saw the sun.
Years before websites, blogs and vanity URLs would become actual things, my domain was the furnished basement of my parents’ suburban home. My most cherished playthings were a Nintendo gaming system with a protruding NHL ’96 cartridge, a big screen TV console fixated on the then-brand-new ESPN 2 (“The Deuce”), and our well-worn favorite chair in desperate need of reupholstering. I shouldn’t therefore, in good conscience, be all high and mighty—like when it comes to the changing landscape of children’s play and how modern parents are “helicoptering,” or participating in “trophy culture.” But, I believe it prohibits 21st-century kids from learning how to win and lose with class.
I know failure. I have failed as a boy and as a young man. I have failed as a young adult and as a parent. And at the end of the day, when the rhetoric is stripped away and the well of excuses has run dry, what our culture is attempting to do by forcing tie scores in grade school basketball games is prevent failure. It seems the hot coffee lawsuits of the ’80s laid a most fertile groundwork for the modern Cover Your Ass (CYA) parenting protection movement. The sad news is that the #FAIL meme has ultimately won out, ’cause we’re all scared to death of letting our kids land flat on their cute pudgy faces, literally or figuratively, privately or in front of a crowd. No one wants to let their kid feel the cold sting of embarrassment or the torment of failure.
What we seem to be forgetting is that without struggle, there can be no progress. Without embarrassment, there can be no empathy. Without failure, there can be no success.
I do not know if it is too late to reverse course and stop the madness when it comes to overprotecting our children from every one of life’s potential pitfalls, but here are five easy steps you can take right now to start combating the baby-proofing of modern childhood and stop screwing up our kids.
1. Don’t Do Your Child’s Art Project, Social Studies Diorama or Science Fair Experiment
It is 100 percent a douche move to do the majority of your kiddo’s school project work. If you need to live vicariously through your child’s faux accomplishments in third grade, you are a colossal loser. Seek professional help. And in case you’re wondering, you ain’t fooling anyone. The rest of us can all tell that your kid didn’t have anything to do with their pristine blue-ribbon-winning science fair entry. You need to step off and let them carry in to class their crappy dioramas with glue streaks where a roof kept sliding down, because that is their real output. That is what they tried hard to accomplish but, in some small way, failed to succeed at building. And that kind of youthful failure is to be embraced, not run away from, because next time they will try harder to make their project more perfect, and then again, and again. This process is called evolution, and you are stepping on its throat every time you complete their assignments on their behalf. Stop it.
2. Don’t Correct Homework
How is anyone going to learn when the documents have been scrubbed and sanitized? How will teachers know what your kid does or does not actually know if every answer is made or corrected by you, the parent? Let your kids try to use the knowledge they are accumulating in class, let them fail by getting some of the answers wrong, let them be corrected by their teachers, and let them learn how to process constructive feedback from someone not related to them, someone not standing over their shoulder applying Wite-Out to their entire childhood educational experience.
3. Keep Your Mouth Shut During Their Games/Practices/Tournaments
Dudes, you’ve gotta tone it down. Let the coaches coach. Let the refs and the umps do their best. Trust in the process. You didn’t sign up for the role of coach or umpire, for whatever reason, so stop yelling obscenities from the bleachers and quit shouting out in-game corrections to your kid and their teammates. If you do have a legit beef, be an adult and approach it on the down-low without veins bulging from your neck as you angrily sit 20 yards off in the distance. Instead, allow your talented child and their instructors to work through the nuances of their performance while you cheer and show support. You are embarrassing yourself, your family, and most importantly, your kid. Now sit the hell down and shut up.
4. Let ‘Em Fall
You’re supposed to fall off the monkey bars while trying to learn how to get from one side to the other. That’s how this crap works. It’s called “trial and error,” not “trial and repeated help from overprotective parents.” Kids have to know what it feels like to lose their grip, to feel the beads of sweat forming on their clammy palms, and to struggle mightily to stay attached to the cold metal bars, only to eventually succumb to gravity and hit the recently rubberized wood chips—hard. Dust ’em off, give ’em a kiss and encourage them to try it again, if not right away, then in a bit when their courage bar refills. Soon, they will get the hang of it, literally, and the glory in their accomplishment will be enhanced for having taken the gravelly path instead of the padded one.
5. Embrace Mistakes
Could you imagine getting to adulthood without the privilege of making mistakes while the errors were minor and fixable, before the consequences became dire? That is what we are doing to our children now. Too many kids are not having to make choices—just play all the sports and go to all the events, even if they overlap!—and too many kids are not being allowed to make mistakes in their youth, the exact period of time when mistake-making should occur.
Kids are going to screw up. They are going to cost you a few extra bucks this winter by turning the heat on in the one room with a separate control panel before running off and forgetting all about it. They are going to invite ants into their bedroom by leaving remnants of a sugary snack on the floor. They are going to drop and shatter a plate when trying to carry too many dishes while clearing the table after dinner. It is our job to pull lessons from these moments and teach a better way forward. That’s one of the biggest tasks of parenthood: to have the tough conversations; to give constructive feedback to help them learn from mistakes; to hold them tight, but not hold them back when they are scared of failing; to give them the space necessary to try on their own; to pay the bloated heating bill; to tell them to put shoes on before they sweep up the pieces of the shattered plate; to love them at every turn.
Parenting well is not easy. It takes restraint and nuance at times and balls-to-the-wall exuberance at other times, but avoiding outright the challenges of failure and embarrassment now is screwing up our children and filling the world with more and more adults too fragile to exist in a harsh world, not willing to kiss their boo-boos and polish over their errors.