Let the children fail … still


Every night, 8-year-old Cooper faces his dreaded literature guide.

Little House in the Big Woods is Cooper’s current nemesis. Each afternoon he does his math problems and spelling words with no problem. But when it comes to literature, he cues his tears like an actor on stage. He pounds his head and (I just discovered) stabs his pencil into the kitchen table in frustration.

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His wretched state is caused by such intellectually confounding questions as: “What nickname does Pa call Laura?” And, “What instrument does Pa play?”

Various members of our family sit with Cooper and offer moral support. Sometimes, especially if we’ve got a good movie to watch, we’re tempted to point out the answer in order to hurry up the grueling process.

But we try to resist. A recent study continues a growing body of research that shows parents who help their children too much are doing them a disservice. The study says that such actions are prompted by a parent’s “misguided attempt to improve their child’s current and future personal and academic success.” It blames the “high responsiveness and low demandingness” of parents.

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard of parents’ low “demandingness.” I’ve written about it in this space more than once. This new research focuses mainly on how overhelping a child hurts his grades, but perhaps that is the least of our concerns.

Lamentations 3:27 says, “It is good for a man to bear the yoke in his youth.” If we are continually rescuing our children from the “yoke” in their youth, how will they develop the tenacity to persevere through any hard experience in life? If Mommy and Daddy jump in to do their chores, to mediate a dispute with a friend, or to pull them from every difficult class, how will our children develop the character to stick with it when they’re on the haying crew in 90 degree temps, pulling the nets onto an Alaskan fishing boat, or enduring a difficult career or marital patch?

The other night Cooper was especially perplexed (“What did Laura receive for Christmas?”)—insisting that there was no way in the whole wide world he could possibly find the answer—so I decided to test a theory. “Cooper,” I asked. “I will give you an hour of video game time (a treat usually reserved only for Friday evenings) if you can finish those questions without crying.”

Ten (dry-eyed) minutes later, they were done.

If I’d followed my tender mama gut (which, believe me, is a real temptation) and helped him out, he would have learned to lean hard, to fain helplessness, and to give up when answers are difficult to find. What would this have done to his character?

Like my dad used to say, “Three guesses and the first two don’t count.”

Amy Henry
Amy Henry

Amy is a married mother of six and a WORLD correspondent from Kansas. Follow her other "scribbles" at Whole Mama or by reading her book Story Mama: What Children's Stories Teach Us About Life, Love and Mothering. Follow Amy on Twitter @wholemama.


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