Without Fail

Everyone wants their kids to succeed, but we're not doing them any favours by shielding them from life's hard knocks.

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Published in The United Church Observer in February 2012

When Emily Dickson's 15-year-old son Dylan brought home a D in science after his first semester in Grade 9, the Toronto mom was determined he wouldn't fail another science test. And so began their nightly battles over homework.

Dylan would fidget at the table under her watchful eye, but it didn't do much to improve his marks. She took away his video games and then stopped paying for his guitar lessons. ("That was dumb because I was punishing myself more than him because I loved the fact that he played guitar.")

Often there were raised voices and tears. "Finally I gave up the fight because my relationship with my son had become so eroded over this," she says.

Dickson told her son it was up to him whether he passed or failed. "At first it felt risky - like I was abandoning him and shirking my motherly responsibility." But for the rest of the school year, she bit her tongue and did not ask Dylan about his science homework.

He managed to squeak by with 62 percent in Grade 9 science and even started to like the subject.

"What this experience taught me is that we are separate from our children," Dickson says. "Their failures or successes aren't ours. They have to be able to make it on their own."

Parents like Dickson aren't alone in wanting to protect their kids from failure. Schools do it too by passing kids to the next grade level even though they get failing marks or by not penalizing kids who cheat. The problem extends to the playing field, where every kid gets a trophy, even the ones who don't show up for practice.

And it continues in university, where parents stay up until the wee hours honing their grown children's papers to "help" them get the best mark possible.

At every step along the way, we try to shield our kids from failure. But in doing so, we're robbing them of the opportunity to develop the resilience they'll need to handle the challenges that life will surely throw them.

"If everybody gets a gold star and a passing grade, what we get is an inflated culture," says Carl Honoré, a Canadian journalist living in London, England, and the author of Under Pressure: Rescuing Our Children from the Culture of Hyper-Parenting.

The result, he warns, is a generation of "mollycoddled" kids who don't learn how to take a knock. "If you sail through childhood completely insulated, when you come out the other side and have to stand on your own two feet, you won't be able to make it," he says.

And if these infantilized adults end up living in our basements well into their 30s, well, we may have no one but ourselves to blame.

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