Much has been made of late regarding enabling and rescuing versus natural consequences and learning from failure. Letting them fail, like riding public transportation, seems best left for other people’s children. “Helping out” “just this one last time” is what parents do with their own.
As always, the best interest of the child should inform our thinking. Distinguishing what the child wants from what the child needs will influence good decision making. Before spewing “fall down seven times, get up eight,” I need to know why the child fell down in the first place. Even more telling: is she able to get up on her own? "Fall down seven times, get up eight" reminds me that history is written by the winners. Sometimes called a "selection bias," we don't hear from those who were only able to stand up five or even six times.
Ten-year-old Percy is cheating at soccer. He is bullying younger kids, pushing and yelling. Percy is frustrated that his teammates don’t pass the ball to him frequently enough, that he hasn’t been able to score any goals. Percy’s camp counselor has repeatedly taken Percy aside, gently admonishing him to “use his words.” Percy’s behavior continues to escalate. Percy commits a flagrant foul, deliberately tripping and pushing a kid from the other team. Percy’s counselor—himself all of 17 years of age—asks Percy to sit down on the bench, to take a few minutes and calm himself.
Percy’s father steps in--and endeavors to have Percy’s counselor fired. Percy’s father complains to the head counselor then writes an explosive email to the owner of the camp. “The counselor has done irrevocable harm to my son’s self esteem,” the father begins. “His insensitive and irresponsible benching of my child has caused lasting damage.”
A more insightful author than I might make an inference regarding where Percy learned to be narcissistic and intractable. I will only suggest that an opportunity for Percy to learn the relationship between behaving badly and being taken out of the game has been squandered. Percy’s father has enabled--there’s that word again--Percy to go on behaving like an ass.
It doesn't have to be that way.
Ignacio’s father has been concerned with Ignacio‘s performance in the classroom. Ignacio’s best grade is a C in advanced placement history. Ignacio is failing pre-calculus. Ignacio‘s father has suggested and Ignacio has gratefully accepted tutors, study buddies, academic help of every kind. Ignacio’s attitude and motivation are good; his grades are not.
Ignacio’s father should allow Ignacio to change classes or, if necessary, to change schools. Something needs to change. Ignacio is not going to wake up tomorrow morning with a fresh attitude and new understanding of how to graph functions.
Helping your child find the educational setting where he can thrive is not enabling. It’s just good sense. Ignacio isn’t learning any valuable life lessons by beating his head against the wall. Ignacio is internalizing that no matter how hard he tries, he can not succeed. If Ignacio's parents don't intercede, then Ignacio will learn that his parents don't trust him or understand his capability.
All loving parents want their beloved children to grow up to be capable, independent, successful young adults. Phrases including “it’s not fair,” “it wasn’t his fault,” “nobody understands,” and “my child is special,” are unlikely to help in achieving those good goals. Whereas trusting that your child is doing the best he can is frequently the right call. “Did he ask for help?” may be a good place to start.
Percy should have been allowed to fail. Sitting on the bench would have been a valuable lesson. Ignacio, to the contrary, needs support and help. We ignore this difference--between enabling and helping--at our peril.