Why I Will Let My Children Fail

02/01/2013 09:44 EST | Updated 04/02/2013 05:12 EDT

When I was in university, one of the requirements for my degree was a political philosophy course. It was not the best class I ever took, although the professor tried really hard. As the old adage goes: it wasn't him, it was me. I knew I wasn't alone in my struggles with the material. In fact, the class had a battle-weary mentality about it. We would commiserate about the volume of reading and reassure each other that we would make it through together.

Each term the major assignment was a 20-page paper on a pre-determined topic. All 45 of us had to write a paper on the exact same thing (which probably isn't what I would do if I were the one that had to mark them...but I wasn't). My grade on the first paper wasn't horrible - a solid B-minus - but I felt I could have done much better. I knew of one fellow classmate who had received a higher grade, and I was complaining to a mutual friend of ours about it. I didn't think she was that much smarter than me, you know? Then this happened:

"Well Erin, you know what she did, don't you?"

" What are you talking about?"

"She had her Mom help her with it."

"Isn't her Mom in Hawaii on vacation?"

"Yes! She faxed it to her parents' hotel so that her Mom could review it. The prof was her mom's thesis advisor."

Now I'm pretty sure that if I ever tried to do that my Mom would be all, "Excuse me, I am on vacation. Do your own work." and throw it in the recycling pile. But honestly, the idea that my Mom should review my university papers at all - let alone that I should bother her on her vacation - never even crossed my mind. Not that Mom's input wouldn't be helpful (she has two university degrees of her own), I just didn't think about doing it. From what I understand, students today don't have quite the same reservations, and a lot of parents are much more hands on than mine ever were. Forget reviewing, these parents have no problem with writing the darn thing in the first place.

A recent study by Judith Locke et al out of the Queensland University of Technology and published in the Australian Journal of Guidance and Counselling discusses how the much-bemoaned "entitlement" of the younger generations these days can be traced back to parents who didn't let their child make his or her own mistakes in school. Time and time again these parents race to their kid's rescue, denying them the opportunity to learn about the magical concept of "consequences".

I'll admit that I was a pretty independent child and young adult. I think it was a combination of nature and nurture, but the idea that my parents would do any of my homework for me was embarrassing. It would have meant that I lacked the skills to do it on my own, and I found that idea horrifying. We felt bad for our friends whose parents would call teachers and professors on their behalf.

To be clear: I don't want my kids to fail - I don't know a parent who does - but if they neglect to study for an exam or have to cram to complete a paper, I am not going to swoop in and save them. At some point they need to be responsible for their own success, and that also means being responsible for their failures.

Tied to this is teaching my children that getting a failing grade does not mean that they are "failures". There is a difference, although I've realized that not many people know that. I'm pretty sure it's why our society sees failing as something to be avoided at all costs, not as a valuable learning experience. I don't doubt that a lot of the motivation behind parents doing schoolwork for their children is because they think that their child failing an exam reflects badly on them as a parent. I would say that the opposite is true. Intentionally inhibiting your child from becoming confident in their own abilities is not behaviour that would give your parenting a passing grade in my books.

My kids are only in preschool, but already they understand the concept of taking pride in their own work. The first time a child colors in the lines, or completes a building block project on his own, and receives praise for a job well done...well that's not a feeling I ever want to take away from them. It builds confidence and resilience, traits that are essential if they are going to emerge from our home as well-adjusted adults.

I will help my kids with their homework, but I won't do it for them. I will nag them about whether they've studied for the test or have started work on a project. I might even run to the store late at night if they've run out of the materials they need to complete that project. But if they wake up one morning with a sob story about why they weren't able to study for their exam and want me to write a note asking for an extension, the answer will be no. They'll be mad at me, but in time I think they'll understand.

If I've really done my job right, they won't even think of asking in the first place.