Why You Should Let Your Kids Be Challenged

As parents, we often want to swoop in to help our kids solve their problems. From brushing their teeth to completing their chores and doing their homework, we justify helping them because we either want to move faster (the bus is coming!) or we feel bad because they are frustrated with a task.

But the worst thing we can do for them is to do for them. There comes a point in their development that they need to ‘figure sh*t out on their own.’ Not that long ago, my (then) 3-year-old decided to get the adult scissors out of the drawer to cut up some papers. When I finally saw him, the mommy brain in me panicked. I ran to grab them from him. After a few seconds of watching him freak out and looking at this sweet little-determined face, I actually gave them back. I showed him around the scissors, how to hold them and established parameters for their use. Before we know it, he was a scissor king.  Or so I thought.  It wasn’t 1-week later he, again, got the scissors out of the drawer without asking, and proceeded to cut up some papers. This time, he cut himself. He hid it from me because he figured out that the punishment for his mistake was likely going to be me taking away the scissors. The reward for dealing with his own pain meant that he 1) could use them again, but more importantly 2) he learned a valuable lesson in how to properly use the scissors. One mistake that he will avoid again at all costs.  He’s grown more cautious around sharp objects and is becoming more confident as a result.

If we don’t challenge our kids (and let them lose sometimes too) then we are taking away from them some of life's most memorable and important lessons. We can’t always do it all for them (Ok, wiping their butts was a hard one for me to let go because, remnants. #keepingitclean). I am not advocating for 80’s style parenting to make a comeback (but, let’s be honest the 80’s was totally care-free and legit. I DO try to sprinkle some laissez-faire parenting around where it’s appropriate), I am suggesting that we calm the F down.

Happiness is Up to Them, but Teaching Competence is Up to Us

Jessica Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure explains that “we seem to be more worried about raising happy children than competent or autonomous ones.” I wish I could sprinkle happiness confetti all over my kids when they wake up in the mornings, but that craps tough to clean up. Besides, their happiness is up to them. (Queue: helicopter parent hatred - “OMG NO! THEIR HAPPINESS IS UP TO YOU MOMMA!” Bahaha, no. That’s a huge crock of BS)

Yeah, well I am not sorry, but the fact is that failing, falling, and being challenged sucks sometimes, ok, maybe most times. But if life were all just sunshine and rainbows it would get pretty boring, fast. Happiness comes from overcoming challenges (sharp scissors) and learning from that process. Controlling parents contribute to the growing trend in less self-sufficient kids, explains psychologist and self-determination theorist Wendy Grolnick. These kids are the ones that give up when faced with a task they can not master because mom or dad always did it for them.  

Kids who were raised by controlling or directive parents could not contemplate tasks on their own, but the kids who were being raised by autonomy-supportive parents stuck with tasks, even when they got frustrated. Kids who can redirect and stay engaged in tasks, even when they find those tasks difficult become less and less dependent on guidance in order to focus, study, organize, and otherwise run their own lives.

Imagine a 14-year-old boy who cannot pack his own bag or a 19-year-old girl who cannot manage conflict?  Imagine an 8-year-old boy asking for someone to wipe his butt, or a 6-year-old girl still drinking from a baby bottle? These are real issues that are happening right now (Note: This article does not take into consideration children who have physical or mental health issues and require the support of an adult).

Let’s just change the perspective here to help out those that have some emotional connection to constantly helping their kids. If I say “let your kid fail”. It’s not very welcoming, is it? But if I change it to “let your kids learn from failure” there is more hope. It indicates that your child will learn because she will likely try to avoid that failure again. That’s my point. Let them try, fail, and LEARN.

The Greatest Learning Comes From Failure

Here is the thing, some of the greatest learnings (inventions and discoveries) came through failure. They came through being challenged. Your son won’t learn to tie his shoe if you don't give him the autonomy to do it himself. Your daughter won’t learn to do her own ponytail if you’re too busy saying “quick, just let me do it!” It really boils down to short-term pain for long-term gain. So what, you missed the school bus this morning because you actually took an extra 5 minutes to teach Johnny how to properly brush his teeth. Guess what you don’t ever have to do again? Teach him how to brush his teeth! And so what if Sally is 10 minutes late for swim class because you were showing her where her changeroom locker was and how to put on her bathing suit. Guess what you won’t have to teach her again ... I think my point is clear.

Your Kids ARE Capable, Let Them Prove It

Kids have more capabilities and capacities then we give them credit for. Yes, I know we don’t want them to grow up. We want them to stay little and protected and happy forever. But the real world isn’t cut out for incompetent healthy adults. Rescuing our kids makes us feel good, but in the long run, it actually has an adverse effect on their competence and confidence.

So, where do you begin?

Start by letting go of one big thing each week. Like packing their school bags, or brushing their teeth, or dressing them, or making their dinner. Decide which age-appropriate life skill they should have mastered by now and let them own it.

For more age-appropriate life skills reading, check out some of these posts: