Okay, we get it: It’s important to let our kids fail now so that they’re not left dependent and helpless in college, to not swoop in and save them from a bad grade — or a tough teacher. We’ve seen the research and read the sound advice underscoring the anxiety-reducing effects of giving your kids more agency over their own lives.
But when your child comes home from school venting about unfair assignments or teachers who “hate” them, how can we well-meaning parents defuse our own anxieties while still supporting our (precious! fragile! frustrated!) babies? How can we remain calm when we’re afraid our children aren’t being heard or getting a fair shake?
“Teach your kids how to advocate for themselves,” says Jessica Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed. “Being able to face an adult when you’re intimidated is one of the most important skills we can teach kids. To me, that ability speaks more highly for a kid’s character than being coddled all the way into an Ivy League school.”
“Encourage your children to talk to their teachers — parents need to foster those opportunities in order for their kids to grow and learn,” says Lahey, emphasising the long-term benefits of parents taking a step back to allow their children to develop their voice.
Practicing this in the early grades will ease your child’s (and your) transition into middle school. “Middle school is a good time for kids to take more responsibility for their learning, both socially and academically,” says Casey Robinson, principal of H-B Woodlawn secondary school in Arlington, Virginia. “Parents need to be involved, but more in terms of knowing what’s going on with their children and helping them problem solve as opposed to being the primary problem solver.” Think of it as stepping into the role of coach or consultant, Robinson says: Offer support and advice, but let your kids be the ones to manage their own academic experience.
By high school, says Robinson, it’s time for students to be the main drivers of their education. “They’re developmentally ready to do that. As a parent, you need to keep an open line of communication with your teen” — and tamping down your anxieties will go a long way towards doing that — “but you also need to ensure that they’re prepared to manage their own social, emotional and academic issues,” Robinson says.
It’s tough to fight the impulse to step in when we’re afraid our kids are going to fall short on an assignment, or when a teacher is dismissing their efforts. Still, Robinson says, teachers would always rather hear from the student than the parent, even if it doesn’t result in that student getting the answer they’re looking for.
When a classroom struggle is causing undue anxiety at home and your kid’s efforts to connect with the teacher haven’t worked, it’s time for the parent to approach the school.
In other words, says Robinson, it’s far better for a student to face a missed deadline head-on by addressing it directly with the teacher than to avoid class for fear of the consequence. This can be hard (but important) for students — and their parents — to swallow. “There’s this need in our culture to avoid having your kid get a C. But guess what? If that happens — and they feel embarrassed about their grade or their lack of preparation — that’s how kids learn to put the structures in place to prevent it from happening again,” she says.
The sign that a parent needs to get involved, says Winters, is when a problem your child is having at school impacts his ability to do his work and learn. “When a classroom struggle is causing undue anxiety at home and your kid’s efforts to connect with the teacher haven’t worked, it’s time for the parent to approach the school.”
“Rather than seeing middle and high school as just a vehicle to get to college, they should be learning experiences in and of themselves. Learning how to self-advocate, how to grow your self-confidence, take responsibility for your mistakes and correct them moving forward — it’s a lot harder to teach those things in college.”