The Snowplow Parent

The Gift of Failure

Give Your Children the Gift of Failure

“But I don’t want my son to have to work hard! I don’t want him to struggle.”

This was the sentiment expressed to me by the mother of a young man who was a student at a school over which I was headmaster. Over a period of months, I noticed that this mom worked very hard to remove every obstacle she could from her son’s life. Every poor test grade (of which there were not many, as he was a bright young man), every writing assignment that pushed the limits of his comfort zone, every new math algorithm that wasn’t immediately accessible to him—mom would challenge his teachers and basically ask them to back off and go a little easier on him. This particular boy didn’t have the best handwriting, and mom wanted us to allow him to type every written assignment so he didn’t have to experience the “difficulty” of writing with pen and paper. (It was our policy to allow students to turn in type-written papers as of 8th grade, but this young man was in 7th.) She would even get his book bag out of the trunk every morning, so he didn’t have to lift it out himself. In short, virtually every obstacle he faced—whether it was in PE, choir, his academic classes, or the parking lot, she tried to remove from her son’s existence.

And I believed the young man was worse for it.

Not wishing to push too hard, but yet believing that my job was to teach parents as well as their children, I carefully broached the subject.

“You know,” I said, “your son is a warrior at heart. He was made to work hard and find great satisfaction in slaying the ‘dragons’ in his life.” That’s when she told me what was truly at the heart of her interventions on her son’s behalf.

“But I don’t want my son to have to work hard! I don’t want him to struggle.”

While you may have heard the term “helicopter parents,” you may not have heard of the latest appellation for a troubling trend recently identified in parenting: snowplow parents, or sometimes lawnmower parents.

Snowplow parents go to whatever lengths they deem necessary to prevent their children from having to face adversity, struggle, or failure of any kind.

Instead of preparing children for life’s challenges—which they must inevitably face—these parents plow obstacles out of the way so children won’t experience them in the first place. However, as I’ve heard Mr. and Mrs. Dollins say many times, we need to prepare our children for the road ahead, and not prepare the road ahead for our children.

I have to believe that snowplow parents mean well. Perhaps they experienced painful disappointments and failures as children, or maybe they felt left alone by their parents in their moment of struggle. No one likes to see his children struggle, let alone fail. Most snowplow parents believe that by removing obstacles from their children’s lives they will be creating happier children. After all, isn’t a possible definition of happiness a life devoid of pain, struggle, and failure?

Not necessarily.

If we seek to raise children who rarely if ever experience struggle or failure, we will not create happy children. We may just be creating entitled, spoiled children who have no idea what to do when they encounter the struggle that must come. After all, God told Adam that only by the sweat of his face would he eat his bread all the days of his life. (And God wasn’t only addressing agrarian, bread-eaters.) The well-intentioned efforts to avoid the results of the Fall may create young men and women who panic or shut down at the first whiff of failure. When children and young adults find failure to be too painful, all they may be left with are things such as blame-shifting, internalization, or worse.

If we seek to eliminate struggle and failure in children’s lives, chances are they will not arrive at adulthood equipped to deal with the inevitability of failure. (See Rom. 5:3-5 and Pr. 24:10ff.)

However, childhood is when they are supposed to learn these skills, particularly when the struggles and failures they face are most likely not of the life-altering kind and are still relatively minor in the vast scheme of things. If we begin with the realization that our children are going to face difficulty, struggle, and failure, I would posit that the best time to learn to cope with those things is in their formative years, when they’re surrounded by loving and supportive parents and teachers, all of whom are unequivocally on their side, desiring the best for them and wanting them to come forth shining as gold (Job 23:10).

And as I am wont to say, we’re raising men and women, not boys and girls.

A child who grows up never having to deal with failure or struggle on his own may not know how to approach his first real F in college, which he’s going to earn. Trust me! Instead of thinking to himself, “Maybe I need to study smarter or manage my time better. Maybe I shouldn’t have spent so much time last week in the game room at the Student Union. I’ll reach out to the professor and see if she knows of any study groups I can join before the next exam.” Instead, he may very likely respond by blaming the professor and write ugly reviews about her online. Perhaps he’ll call home and ask his parents to intervene. (You’d be surprised how often this happens on college campuses today…even in the workplace!) Maybe he’ll make himself generally miserable, assuming he failed because he’s unable or less intelligent than his classmates who passed. Perhaps he’ll just give up and drop out, thus establishing a pattern of failure.

You may think I’m overstating the case. However, over the years, I’ve seen similar versions of these same behaviors in the schools I’ve overseen and in the colleges our graduates—and my own children—have attended.

Of course, some parents have children who suffer from anxiety or depression. But I’m not talking about children in this group at all. Parents of these children understandably may try to mitigate their struggles and challenges because they’ve seen the way their child has responded to other struggles in the past. It’s prima facie that every child and situation is different.

Even so, I’m not sure that the solution for every tender or sensitive child is to remove as much struggle as possible.

Children may grow up at best at a distinct disadvantage if they are raised to shy away from anything outside their comfort zones, instead of learning how to work through their discomfort. If they’re implicitly taught as children that they are ill-equipped to handle the vicissitudes of life, they may learn that lesson all too well.

If we want our children to grow to be successful, healthy adults, we must teach them how to work through their challenges and failures when they are young. Only then will they be able to respond to disappointment and learn to advocate for themselves. And since so much of their young lives are spent in school, school becomes a good place to begin to learn the lessons only failure can teach.

By Mike McKenna

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