I went to a conference a few months ago and had the chance to swap stories with my fellow teachers of English. I found it fascinating that regardless of the location and financial status of the school in question, many similarities abound when it comes to our experiences.

  • Most of us really love the literature and the students we teach.
  • Most of us really do find ourselves checking for errors on any scrap of paper that comes our way, despite our best efforts to be normal.
  • Most of us really have heard conversations like the one below.

A colleague of mine was walking through the hallway one afternoon and overheard a conversation taking place between two sets of Senior parents. They were discussing their children’s college plans and as my friend was searching for her keys, she actually heard the following comments:

“Well, I just don’t know what to do. We are in real danger of not graduating this year. I can’t understand it. We’re getting an A in History, but we can’t seem to get our act together for Math! We are on the verge of failing the class for the entire semester.”

As an expert in language arts, my friend is trained to take words seriously. One word in this overheard dialogue stood out more than any other.

We.

“We” indicates a joint venture. Two or more linked together in a combined effort. Isn’t that the wrong pronoun to use? In education, everyone touts parental involvement as paramount to a child’s success, but I think it depends on the type of involvement. This mom seemed to be managing her child’s education instead of supporting it.

Before my colleague could turn her key into the lock, she heard the continuation of the conversation…

“I just don’t get it. When Christie was in elementary school, we never got below an A. I would never let her turn anything in late or sloppy. I always made sure she studied for tests and the thought of her failing anything was just unacceptable. I don’t see why we’re struggling so much this year.”

I do. Christie is struggling this year because she never had to up to this point. She hadn’t been allowed to stand on her own two feet for much of anything and it was finally catching up to her.

That little pronoun my colleague noticed is one of the biggest words in our vocabulary. It says so much in just two letters. “We” means that we are inextricably linked. If you fail, I’ve failed. If you succeed, I’ve succeeded. It is the Siamese twin of all pronouns, taking away separation and individual responsibility in one fell swoop. With this kind of thinking, it becomes very difficult to see where the parent ends and the child begins.

How might the scenario look if long ago, Christie’s mom changed that one simple word from “we” to “you”? What if instead of “we need to study for your test tomorrow”, she simply said, “I hear you have a test tomorrow, let me know if you’d like any help studying for it.”? This small change gives the responsibility for the test (and the outcome) to the child. Mom is still taking an important role in the educational process, but she’s getting out of the way this time. Now Christie has a chance to succeed or fail on her own. Either one of those options provide a chance to learn, which is supposed to be the goal of school in the first place, right?

Ok, I can hear you now, “Allow my child to succeed or…Fail?!?!?!” Absolutely. Wouldn’t it be better to allow your child to taste the consequences of failure firsthand at a young age rather than choke on the consequences later when you are not there to bail her out?

Trust me, I know. Watching your child struggle is incredibly hard. It’s so hard, in fact, that many of us don’t do it often enough. But think about it. It is irony in its purest sense. Because I am afraid that my child will fail at something, I will step in and make sure that she doesn’t. In doing so, I will virtually guarantee that she will not learn the lesson which she would have learned from that failure and I will thereby ensure that she will fail later in a similar endeavor, with further reaching consequences.

When we take over and “catch” our kids, we not only take away their chance to fail, but we rob them of the chance for them to succeed on their own and feel amazing about themselves in the process.

One of the coolest moments occurred a few months ago when my family and I went skiing. The kids went to ski school and the adults headed up the mountain for the rest of the day. Around lunch time, we skied to the lodge and we happened upon my son Brandon’s ski class. I recognized his instructor and several of the kids from his group, but I couldn’t see him. I peeked around the corner and what I saw broke my heart. He was sitting in the snow, all alone, trying to fix the straps on his helmet which had come undone. The strap kept slipping and he was getting more and more frustrated. His eyes were red and his hair matted. The other boys were huddled together laughing and cutting up. It looked like he had been picked on and shoved into the snow.

I was already feeling a twinge of guilt for putting him in “the clink” as our friends called it, but this sealed the deal. My instinct was to call out to him, rush over to his side, comfort him and fix his helmet. I wanted to ask him which little tyrant pushed him and give the little snot a good talking to. As I lunged forward, something amazing happened. He sat up and with a look of determination, threw down his gloves. He stuck the helmet between his knees and with all of his might pulled the strap taut across the opening. He then stood up tall, dusted himself off and crunched through the snow to his group. As he got to them, they all gave him high fives for fixing his own gear. He was beaming.

I came really close to jumping in and taking away that opportunity from him because his struggle and the chance of him failing at something made me really anxious. Nothing good could have come from me taking over in that situation. If I had stepped in, I would be telling him that I didn’t think he was capable of fixing his own problem or handling disappointment. I was reminded of one of my favorite quotes by one of my favorite men. Teddy Roosevelt once said,

“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat”.

We as parents are all too ready to step in and take either the credit or the blame for where our children are. We should not allow our anxiety to push our kids into the shadows. Instead, we should learn to step aside and let our kids experience defeat or victory on their own terms. That, after all, is the true goal of education. 


Jenny Runkel is the Director of Content for ScreamFree.com, and wife of Hal Runkel, author of ScreamFree Parenting: The Revolutionary Approach to Raising Your Kids by Keeping Your Cool.