When The Going Gets Tough ... Let Kids Fail?

Some parents will do anything to help their kids get ahead, but some experts say we should let them fail so they can be prepared for the real world. Host Michel Martin speaks with Ana Homayoun, author of The Myth of the Perfect Girl, and parents Glenn Ivey and Dani Tucker.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms and dads in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their common sense and savvy parenting advice.

Now, we know a lot of parents have made New Year's resolutions, like spending more time with your family or being more patient with your kids. But we've been hearing from some parents who are actually resolving to do a little less, when it comes to the kids. They are people like writer Tracy Grant, who posted on The Washington Post parenting blog that her goal is to be, quote, "just a little less hovering, a little less worrying, a little less intervening. If we give it a try, we might just wind up with less gray hair, and better relationships with our kids by year's end," unquote. This is in line with what we're hearing from what seems to be a growing chorus of parents and experts who are saying that perhaps we should be letting children stumble and sometimes fail, to better prepare them for the real world.

We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called two of our regulars. Dani Tucker - she's a mom of two, an office administrator and fitness instructor. Glenn Ivey is the father of five boys and one daughter. He's the husband of another of our regulars, Jolene Ivey. He's an attorney in private practice, and a former prosecutor. Also with us, Ana Homayoun; she is author of the new book "The Myth of the Perfect Girl," and an educational consultant for middle, high school and college students.

Welcome to you all. Thanks you all so much for joining us.

GLENN IVEY: Thanks for having me.

DANI TUCKER: Thank you.

ANA HOMAYOUN: Thank you.

MARTIN: Dani, I'm going to start with you because you're kind of our tough love person, you know, around here. Do you think that kids are more sheltered today, that parents are more likely to try to keep kids from failing or stumbling than they were when we were growing up?

TUCKER: Oh, most definitely.

MARTIN: And why do you think that is?

TUCKER: Look at the line for them tennis shoes, you know, over the Christmas holidays. You know, really? I mean, I don't know. I think it's because we want to keep giving them what we didn't have, maybe. You know, I think that's what I hear from parents. I mean, you know me. I'm just the opposite.

MARTIN: Don't you, though? You don't want to give your kids what you didn't have?

TUCKER: Payless has good shoes. Payless has really good shoes, especially - you know, like I tell my - I always taught my kids - and you know this - I supply what you need. You work for what you want. That's what my dad taught us because you have to teach them that and a lot of these children, as they become young adults, they're not ready to stand on their own because you gave them everything. You didn't allow them to fail, you know, when they were younger, when they were teenagers, you know, and I think it's really hurting us.

MARTIN: Well, Glenn, I wanted to - one of the reasons I'm glad you're here with us - because, as a former prosecutor, I'm wondering whether part of the issue is that the consequences of failure are very high now - I mean, you hear stories about people who had juvenile records, for example, and went on to become, you know, big, important and productive people. But you hear nowadays that you can not afford to let a kid go through the criminal justice system or have contact with the criminal justice system or have - you know, the stuff that we - you know, you read stories about, you know, knocking over mailboxes, tagging car - you know, breaking a car window and stuff like that, which is not great, but kind of juvenile mischief - has serious consequences now, so you can't afford to let kids fail. And I wonder, what's your perspective on that?

IVEY: Well, I guess it depends on the socioeconomic circumstances. A lot of times, there are - certainly for lower income kids, those types of failures can really be magnified in very dramatic ways, including getting into the criminal justice system or getting put on a different track with respect to your school.

I think the middle class and upper classes - you know, I think it's maybe a little bit of the opposite going on. I think - and we were talking about this in the green room in advance. I think there is a - there's a buffer that's put around kids a lot of times now and it can start early. You know, like, you know, youth soccer or T-ball, we don't keep score. Nobody loses. There's not a championship. Nobody starts. I mean, those sorts of things, which I didn't really think much about, you know, when my kids were younger.

You know, I'm starting to see kids now who've been in this sort of circumstance where they've never been allowed to fail. You know, one lady said when I was state's attorney - she said, these new kids - it's like they show up for work. They think they should get a standing ovation and so the work ethic - her point was that the work ethic isn't there and, you know, I'm going to do my eight hours and leave. There isn't this - I'm going to put in the extra time if it's needed, that sort of thing.

MARTIN: And you attribute that to what? Being buffered or sheltered or being shielded from disappointment?

IVEY: You know, I'm not exactly sure, but I do think that that's - there may be a piece of that. I'm starting to see kids now, like, you know, they're dropping out of college. They don't want to get jobs. And these aren't kids that are coming from, you know, poor backgrounds only. This is kids who have really been - they've gotten all those advantages and all the - you know, the head starts and everything, but they're just lethargic. The energy, the ambition, the drive isn't there. I don't know.

MARTIN: Ana, give us your perspective on this. Your book is called "The Myth of the Perfect Girl." First off, tell us what made you want to write this book and what's your perspective on this idea of failure?

HOMAYOUN: Well, so what I really wanted to do was I was seeing so many girls in my office that were coming in and they were sort of, quote, quote, "doing everything right," but they felt like nothing they did was ever good enough. And a lot of it was because they were working towards external expectations, rather than figuring out intrinsically what motivated them. And they were looking for external validation for success constantly. So, what are the numbers, or what is the activity that's going to get me into college or all these things? And so a lot of times they were taking the riskier route or the healthier risks of trying something new or learning something that was somewhat challenging for them. And what ends up happening is the sort of feeling of emptiness, which is why I wrote the book. And the feeling of failure that we're not allowing kids to experience early on is really hurting them in the long run because then they get to the first job or the first letdown and it becomes so much more magnified because they've never been able to collaborate to figure out what to do when plan A doesn't work out, to look at alternative solutions. So it really hurts them in the long run.

MARTIN: Give an example of what you're talking about though, of not being allowed to fail. Because I'm sure that there are young people who would say, what are you kidding me, they're set up for failure all the time, all the testing, all the competitive sports; all of that business. Give an example of what you're talking about.

HOMAYOUN: Sure. Well, you know, just think about students who are taking an easier route rather than taking a more challenging route, or getting straight As all the time and being, you know, being told if they do X, Y and Z, they'll always get an A. And then they get into college and they get into a really competitive school and they go there and they realize even if I do my best I might not get in A. And that was a conversation I had with a former student of mine who had gone on to college and she had been a straight A student, and that was a big stumbling block for her, not just to figure out not getting an A is OK. And it's not just about grades but not being the best at everything doesn't mean you're a failure. And I think a lot...

MARTIN: Oh, good, I'm sorry. I just wanted to ask, well, what about the question I asked Glenn though, which is is it in part that people are responding to the circumstances that actually exist, which is that you can't afford to fail because if you do the consequences are just too high, the consequences of experimenting, the consequences of getting a lousy grade in a really tough course are just too high if you've got a college that's only looking at GPA. You know, why wouldn't you just take the courses that you know you can ace?

HOMAYOUN: I think for parents though, it's a combination of fear and guilt. That they, you know, the micromanaging that comes when parents want to be overly involved that comes from that. And I think that people perceive things to be much more challenging than they are. Again, like when you're talking about college admissions, there are many universities out in the United States that accept more than 50 percent of students but we really focus on sort of a niche of 50 or 60 schools, and that's why it's become overly competitive in the last 10 years. So that's a perception that's being made. But in reality, when kids are offered the opportunity or encouraged to take another path or really focus on what is it that they enjoy, they end up finding for greater success than anyone could have ever predicted for them because they developed that intrinsic motivation and that work ethic that we just, as Glenn said, are not seeing in this generation.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We are speaking with Ana Homayoun. She is the author of "The Myth of the Perfect Girl." Also with us parents, Dani Tucker and Glenn Ivey, two of our regular contributors to our parenting conversation.

Dani Tucker, talk more about this. I mean, do you think that part of this conversation about not letting kids fail or parents being too quick to kind of save their kids is really kind of an elite conversation, that that's something that you can only worry about that if that's something you can afford to do, protect your kids? Or do you see that as something that's kind of pervasive?

TUCKER: I don't know, I see of pervasive in single moms or working-class moms. I mean, it's the same thing to me. I don't, for us, I don't think that the economy - or, you know, when we make or don't make makes a difference, it's all in what you want for your kids. I mean, I have had to say to many of them or kind of give them the eye, what are you doing? You know, I mean, not that you don't have it like - you don't have it like that. I mean, let's be real. But why are you doing it? Because you want them to keep up with the Joneses. The Joneses don't live here. So, I mean, you know, it's very...

MARTIN: You think it's the idea of forestalling disappointment? The idea that people don't want their kids to be disappointed?

TUCKER: Forestalling disappointment, and trying to obtain something that's not yours, that's never going to be yours, and it's all right. That does not, I think, because thing for where I come from is that doesn't - what is success? And you being able to buy this or you being able to do this or your child being able to go here or go there, that's not really success. It's, you know, don't make because that's what your child is going to think success is. So when they don't achieve that, now what? When they do fail achieving that then what are you saying, they're insignificant? Or that, you know, they have no importance? And that's where we're falling, you know, now. You know, I might teach these kids to make the best of where they are, where they are and what they have.

MARTIN: How do you institute that in your own life? I mean, how do you - I mean, just from the time kids are little, you know, when they stumble, sure, that's your whole job is to keep them from like hitting their head, right? I mean, it's like, you know what I mean, in a way it's like when kids are little like what's the first you learn? Protect the head or, you know, you're holding them up and you're trying to help them sort of learn to walk. I mean, I just think that's a journey every parent has to go up through is to figure out when to let go and when to actually let them figure out gravity, right? So when they get older, how do you in your own mind, is there ever a point where you really felt torn between wanting to protect them from a disappointment or a loss or a failure and yet you had to really test yourself?

TUCKER: Yeah, when they started out (unintelligible) eating me. You know, when they started to get big enough and you know that eventually they're going to go forth into the world and do something and it doesn't look like they're headed that way then, you know, you've got to really say something to yourself. You know if your 15- or 16 year-old is not ready to go to college. I knew. You know, then where is he ready to go? What is he ready to do? Not stay on my couch until he's 30.

(LAUGHTER)

TUCKER: And I think that's when you have to push him out. That's when you have to say OK, you know what? No. You know, I don't pay for this anymore. You're old enough to work. You have these hours to do this and go get a job. And, you know, so you have to say to yourself, do you want your child to stand on his own? Then you've got to let him get up, fall down. Get up, fall down and learn how to do it.

MARTIN: Glenn Ivey, is there ever a point where you felt tested by a child wanting to do something or fail or quit or do something and you thought, you know what, I just have to let this process go forward and it was hard for you?

IVEY: I think it's great you put that in the past tense like it doesn't happen anymore...

(LAUGHTER)

IVEY: ...because it continues even when they're adults. I've got two adult children, now you see...

MARTIN: Would they agree that they're adults? I'm just saying...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Does your wallet agree that they're adults?

IVEY: Well, that's a fair point. But...

MARTIN: Anyway, but you were saying? Sorry?

IVEY: But, you know, the older they get the riskier the failures can be. So, you know, you get to the drugs age, or the I don't want to go to college age or I don't want to work age, you know, it's harder then. But if it's T-ball and they're five and you're yelling at the coach because your kids' not getting to play, you know, that sort of thing. And it's funny now because I'm at, like, a grandparent age for my 12-year-old's teams, right? And I can look back and say, jeez, I was doing that 20 years ago or 15 years ago with Alex, but now I can see it for what it is. And it's, well, your kid's not good enough to start, you know. And somewhere along we lost that and I think it's part of what we're talking about. You know, you didn't do a good job, you're not hustling out there, so I'm pulling you out of the game and putting somebody else in. Those are things that you don't see at youth sports anymore. It's a great place to teach kids those lessons in a non-painful way.

MARTIN: But you were also telling us that sometimes the kid is telling you something himself or herself. One of your sons wanted to quit competitive swimming to take up parkour, which is in an aerobic sport where you kind of jump between buildings over fences. Anybody who has ever seen, you know, a music video will have seen parkour, even if they didn't know that that's what it was.

IVEY: Right.

MARTIN: You can want to quit because you thought, you know, you're being a quitter. Turns out he's great at parkour.

IVEY: Yeah. Well, he was a great summer too...

MARTIN: Yeah.

IVEY: ...but I mean the point is valid.

MARTIN: Yeah.

IVEY: You know, and I was looking at that and I was like, well, if he quits swimming what's the negative consequence? And this parkour is, you know, this is like eight years ago. I was like I don't know what that is.

(LAUGHTER)

IVEY: You know, but he seems to be into it. He seems to be good at. I went online, you know, it's French, it's international and all that, and he is keeping healthy and everything. And then he started becoming successful at it, so I was like all right, let me step back from that. This isn't I don't want to go to college. This isn't I'm going to test out drugs or I'm going to start drink - this is something where it's like OK, give it a shot and if it doesn't work out, great.

MARTIN: Ana, what do you have to say about this? Because one of the things that you've written about is this whole question of kids kind of gaming the system and never really pushing themselves. Like even in college, they finding - and never forcing yourself to take the science class, for example, if you don't have to. Not really kind of pushing yourself to think deeply about something unless you really have to because you don't want to mess up your GPA; that sort of thing. On the other hand, as we've said, you know, sometimes people are responding to incentives that they see in front of them and they think they need that GPA to get into grad school. How do you advise people to think about this?

HOMAYOUN: Well, I think it's a great example of high school, right, to try a different activity because a lot of times what I see in high school parents or parents of high school students is they'll say, I don't want him to quit, you know, basketball because he's done it for eight years or whatever, and the student really wants to play another sport or do something else. And that's when you're sending the message to the student young enough that they really just need to keep doing what they need to do and not try alternatives, when really high school and college is that time of exploration. And what you can do, you know, when you're having that conversation with students is what I generally do is ask them to list what are the things that they - new things that they would want to try, what are things that they want to make more time for, and what are things that they really enjoy doing? And what they can do from there is just really start to brainstorm how are they spending their time and is it doing what they want to do.

And in terms of, you know, getting those grades for graduate school and all of that stuff, there are a lot of different ways to explore, you know, a new class or a new interest. It doesn't necessarily have to be just in the classroom, so it doesn't have to be grade-focused. And so that's what I talked about in the book, was that we have this focus on just doing things that we get, you know, some sort of external validation for, but really going beyond that and exploring.

So, like, for example, if you're trying a new sport like parkour, you're not going to get external validation right away for that, right? You're starting something new and that's what I really want to encourage students to do more of because really what they're doing is falling back on what they've known all along and taking the safer route.

MARTIN: What's the one thing you wish you had done if you had read this book when you were in that phase of life yourself? What's the one thing you wish you had done Ana, that you didn't do?

HOMAYOUN: Oh, you know what I'm really wish I would have done is done a study abroad program in high school. I think that would've been really cool. And I love to travel and so that's probably, you know, I saw it and then I was, like, oh, you know, I don't know how that's going to look for college applications. So I definitely experienced that myself.

MARTIN: Glenn, what's the one thing you wish you had done if you had read this book when you were that age?

IVEY: Well, I mean, I was committed to basketball. And you can't see me because we're on the radio, but I'm 5'9...

(LAUGHTER)

IVEY: So, you know, soccer...

HOMAYOUN: Go for it.

IVEY: Soccer would've been...

MARTIN: That would've been good.

IVEY: Yeah.

MARTIN: Dani, quickly, what's the one thing you should've done or you wish you would've done?

TUCKER: Worked on my character more. I sucked...

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Oh, you. Oh, OK.

TUCKER: ...as a young person. I'm just going to be honest.

MARTIN: I'll have to dig into that later in a future program.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Dani Tucker is one of our regular parenting contributors. She's a mom of two, an office administrator and fitness instructor. Glenn Ivey is the dad of five boys. He's an attorney in private practice. Glenn and Dani were here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Ana Homayoun is the author of the new book...

(SOUNDBITE OF COUGHING)

MARTIN: Sorry - I almost made it - the author of the new book "The Myth of the Perfect Girl." Thank you all.

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MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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