Years before websites, blogs and vanity URLs would become actual things, the furnished basement of my parents suburban home was my domain. 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 a well-worn favorite chair in desperate need of reupholstering were my most cherished playthings. I shouldn’t therefore, in good conscience, be all high and mighty-like when it comes to the changing landscape of children’s play. But because of repeated failures throughout my 38-plus years, I have ideas on exactly how to counteract the babyproofing of modern childhood.
Preventing failure is exactly what our culture attempts to do by installing rubberized cocoons and calling them playgrounds, and forcing tie scores in grade school basketball games. We’re all scared shitless to let our kids land flat on their cute pudgy faces, literally or figuratively, privately or in front of a crowd. No one wants their child to feel the cold sting of embarrassment or the torment of failure.
But what we seem to forget is that without struggle, there can be no progress. Without embarrassment, there can be no empathy. Without failure, there can be no success. By outright avoiding 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 world that won’t kiss their every boo-boo and polish over their errors.
I frankly do not know if it is too late to reverse course and stop the madness when it comes to over-protecting our children from every one of life’s potential pitfalls, but here are five easy steps that qualify as the opposite of helicopter parenting that you can take right now to make a difference:
1. Don’t Do Your Child’s School Projects
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.
And, in case you’re wondering, you ain’t fooling anyone. We can all tell 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 diorama with glue streaks where the 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. 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 assignments on your child’s behalf. Stop it.
2. Don’t Even Correct Their 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 correct, some of them artificially, on the homework when it comes back in the next day. 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. Shut Up During Sports
Dudes, you’ve gotta tone it down. Let the coaches coach. Let the refs and the umps do their best. Trust in the process. Stop shouting 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 sit 20 yards off in the distance. Instead, allow your child and their instructors to work through the nuances of their performance. 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 learning how to get from one side to the other. That’s how this shit works. It’s called “trial and error,” not “trial and repeated help from scared parent.” 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 woodchips 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 taking the gravely path instead of the padded one.
5. Embrace Mistakes
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 turn the heat on in the one room with a separate control and then run off and forget. They are going to invite ants into their room 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 is one of the biggest ‘asks’ 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 love at every turn.
A version of this first appeared on Out With the Kids.