Protecting Our Children from Failure, or Ensuring Failure?


We live in a different time than we did when I grew up.  Nobody had cell phones, satellite TV, or five hundred dollar bicycles.  We didn’t use germicidal handwash, wear bike helmets, and we knew how to start a lawn mower at age ten.  If a kid had trouble paying attention in the inadequate government school he attended, he got pounded by his parents until he either paid attention or moved out.  I hadn’t heard the term “self esteem” until I was out of school as it applied to damaging a child’s psyche.  I played outside when it was warm enough, did homework, and got dirty.  I went fishing with my dad, got all smelly at the lake, and even smellier when I got home because I helped clean the fish. 

I have been around a little.  I was in the Navy, worked as a mechanic in a steel mill, and at a contact lens factory.  I’ve sold insurance and worked as an engineer in a power distribution manufacturer.   I now work part time in a bowling center as a mechanic, after I quit my most recent job because I didn’t like the way it was going there for the company.  Now, this may sound like failure to you, but I don’t think so.  I’ve managed to raise three bright boys who are doing what they love doing.  They didn’t get cell phones until they needed them.  When they made mistakes, they paid for them in sweat or with a spanking (didn’t have to spank them much.  Go figure).  They understand that their lives are in their hands, and that the choices they make from now until forever affect how they live their lives. 

And they never had bumpers at the bowling alley.

As I mentioned, I work at a bowling center.  I see a lot of parents and kids in the center bowling, eating pizza and having fun.  I like this.  It’s important for people to spend time with family and enjoy each other’s company. 

Then there are the bumpers. 

If you haven’t been bowling in the last twenty-something years, bowling centers have installed bumpers to prevent the ball from going into the gutter.  Little kids can now bowl with little regard for where the ball goes once it leaves their hand.  Drunks can, too.  But I digress.  Now, you may think that this bumper thing is a good idea.  And it is.  For kids between the ages of two and five.  Beyond that, a kid is coordinated enough to walk in a line and roll a bowling ball.  Hell, the thing only weighs six pounds.  Drunks like those, too.  Again, I digress. 

I see parents with their seven year old and the bumpers up, using one of the ramps that are supposed to be used by people who cannot walk when they bowl.  You’d think with all these safeguards to prevent an uncoordinated kid from throwing a gutter ball, they would score big and never throw a gutter ball.  You’d be wrong.  The bumpers only go as far as sixty feet, with the pin deck beyond that distance, so the ball can fall into the gutter very near the pins.  And it does. 

Why go through all this explanation?  Because it is a microcosm for how we are screwing up our kids.  If you go bowling once a year, fine.  Use the damn bumpers.  If not, let the kid learn how to bowl.  I guarantee you a five year old can do it.  My kids did when they were five.  And they learned how to bowl.  Now, they are all pretty solid bowlers.  But they might never have learned how to properly hold and roll the ball if they had the safety net of the bumpers all the time when they were little.  Now, parents are so intent on “protecting” their kids from failure that they are hurting their kids.

Failure is good for a kid.  It teaches perseverence.  It teaches attention to details of a specific task.  And it teaches kids that if they want to win the trophy or get the blue ribbon, they have to try harder next time.  This builds character and self esteem.  Self esteem is, by definition, how a person feels about themselves and cannot be given to them by anyone else.  Self esteem is earned by doing a difficult task well.  No other way.  Kids now have a false sense of self esteem.  If they fail at something, no big deal.  They still get a trophy for participating.  “You showed up Johnny.  You weren’t very good at basketball, but you showed up.  Good job.”  Kids begin to expect this treatment.  When they get into the real world and have to perform a job to the satisfaction of their boss and cannot, there isn’t a prize for them.  Effort does not matter nearly as much as results.  And there are a lot of competitors in the real world.  If you can’t out perform them, you won’t get a raise or promotion.  That’s just how it is. 

Parents are largely responsible for this trend.  I like that there is basketball, football, baseball, tennis, water polo, chess, karate, soccer, and competitive BB stacking for kids. But these activities are supposed to teach kids how to perform physical tasks, condition their bodies, and teach sportsmanship.  They are also supposed to teach them how to take direction and how to be patient and persevere.  Playing time should be earned.  But many leagues now have rules about minutes or quarters a kid is allowed to play, making sure everyone gets into the game.  Fine.  If the coaches agree to play their B teams against each other, that’s all good and fine.  But there isn’t anything sadder than a B team football team getting stomped by an A team football team because the coaches have manipulated the rules.  It doesn’t teach either team anything.  But that doesn’t seem to be the point.

My youngest son is small.  He’s always been small.  He won’t always be small.  We are late bloomers.  Just genetics.  He played football for a youth team starting at age eight.  He was slower than the other kids, but he gave everything he had on the field.  He was smart and was where he was supposed to be on the field when he got in the game, he just didn’t have the tools to get a kid to the ground who outweighed him by fifty pounds.  Not every time, anyway.  He got them down sometimes.  The point is that he knew he wouldn’t ever be a star, but he played anyway.  I asked him why he played once.  “Because I love it, Dad,” was his response.  And he kept playing until after the eighth grade.  He gave it up when he realized he would be on the field with kids that weighed three hundred pounds.  He didn’t want to die, since he is a buck ten soaking wet.  But those days did teach him something.

If a parent kisses the coach’s butt, you can get playing time.  If a coach is a parent, his kid can be quarterback, even if he can’t run or throw, or isn’t smart enough to execute the offense.  He still suited up and practiced hard, got better, but, alas, never got much of a chance to play.  And I’m okay with that.  He earned everything he got on his own.  He tried hard, and didn’t give up.  I refused to suck up to get him playing time.  I figured it wouldn’t help him.  I was right.

Look, if your kid is capable of being a first round draft pick in the NFL, it will show on the field.  You aren’t helping a kid who can’t do it by putting him in a position to fail.  You are ensuring that his own opinion of himself will never measure up.  You are ensuring failure. 

Let your kid experience lifes joys and sadness, successes and failures.  He’ll be better able to deal with disappointment. 

Oh, and ADHD is an invented sickness to give kids an excuse to do whatever they want whenever they want.  If a kid’s wiring is that messed up, is phychiatrist time.  Kids will focus if they are interested, and they will be interested if they think that a belt is waiting for them at home if they don’t. 

Just sayin’.

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