Why I want my kids to fail

July 5, 2011

There are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized… It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us.

Conan O’Brien – Dartmouth 2011 Commencement Address

It is strange that a comedian’s words would resonate with me so much, especially bringing to mind two recent child development books that I’ve read [1,2] and an episode of Penn & Teller’s Bullshit on self-esteem. But they are all windows into this same myth that plague’s many parents: that building a child’s self-esteem is your most critical job as a parent and to do so means sheltering your child from all forms of failure.

We see this insane focus on over-protecting our children’s self-esteem everywhere. Everyone at a tournament gets a trophy; kids are taught that everyone is a winner; and praise is heaped upon a child for every single accomplishment no matter how mundane. I hear principals say that every child is a genius. It is simply inadequate any more to say that everyone is a human being deserving of respect and love, and now we tell the lie that every child is remarkable in every way. However, kids are not stupid, and they know that when the word “genius” is used in this way, it simply becomes devoid of meaning anymore; it becomes cliché.

Somehow we have gone from “everyone needs to do their best”, to “everyone is the best”. And even more bizarrely, our children are told that the way to be the best is by never failing, or at least never admitting to it. These may not be words that are said directly, but they are the lessons learned. By focusing so much on the result and the accomplishments, rather than the effort, we reinforce in our children this conception that failure is to be avoided at all costs.

Research in child development has shown a couple of things in regards to this topic. First, it is not at all clear that there is a self-esteem crisis in our children nor that it is the root of most of their problems. If anything, this over focus on self-esteem has created a more narcissistic generation. Second, praise has been shown to have an inverse relationship to performance; the more you praise a child, the less they succeed.

The problem is that if we are constantly praised for our success, and not our effort, we start to tie up our identity and self-worth in the results. Failure, rather than becoming a lesson, becomes terrifying. If we are not the best or don’t always succeed, then it is something fundamentally wrong with who we are and our value as a person, or so we think. The fear of failure then becomes paralyzing in itself, and we miss the most important lessons in life, the hardest won: those of our failures.

The end effect is tragic. Being unable to overcome the fear of failure, we stop taking risks that would allow us to do truly great things. We take the safe path, and we never explore other areas of growth and opportunity that make us uncomfortable. Having Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) myself, I have struggled hard with perfectionism. My identity was wrapped up in my perceived intelligence and specifically my mathematical abilities. Getting a 4.0 in 3 college degrees was not enough. It was not enough to have all A’s but I had to beat everyone else’s A in my classes to be satisfied. Most people look at my college career and naturally think that I took the hard path, but in reality it was the easy path. It’s not that I didn’t work hard or challenge myself in those classes. Math was the easy choice because it is where I knew I could succeed. I avoided general education and non-science/math courses as much as possible because it threatened my GPA. I was afraid of failure. As interested as I was in history, philosophy and other subjects, I never took more of those courses than required. I took my easy path. And as I look back on life, I see I have done that far too many times and missed many opportunities. Just now, in my mid-thirties, am I beginning to overcome the fear of failure.

So do I want my kids to be failures; of course not. However, to truly succeed and excel in life, you must have failures as well. I do not want to rob my children of the lessons that failure teaches or allow the fear of it to close doors of opportunity for them. Using these lessons of science and my own past failure to accept failure, I will teach my kids a new way. I will praise the effort, regardless of the outcomes. I will not sugarcoat their failures and mistakes, but instead I will make them face their failures head on and help them through it. I will not let them always take the easy or comfortable path. And in the end, I will help them to succeed at life by learning to fall gracefully along the way.

  1. Bronson, P., & Merryman, A. (2009). Nurtureshock: new thinking about children.
  2. Mercer, Jean A., A. (2009). Child Development: Myths and Misunderstandings.

An Octopus’ Nursery Under the Sea

June 27, 2011

The big cover story last Sunday in my local paper was Local diver captures octopus birth on video. It had been covered earlier by the paper’s nature blog.

Please share these incredible videos with your children: Read the rest of this entry »

Podcast #48: TAM 9 and Michael Shermer

June 25, 2011

The latest Parenting Within Reason podcast can be downloaded here.

In the first part Colin has a conversation with Michael Blanford, JREF’s Director of Educational Programs, about the upcoming TAM 9 From Outer Space. Several of us connected to this website and the podcast will be attending, including myself.

Then Adam Slagell has a conversation with Michael Shermer, author and the founding publisher of Skeptic Magazine. It is a friendly conversation that touches on lots of subjects including parenting, cycling, books and more midst of what sounds like a busy restaurant.

Please Don’t Drown

June 22, 2011

That was the glib farewell I gave to the kids as I dropped them off for a swim. Of course it was a swimming pool with lifeguards, and not the lake that was a short walk away. Read the rest of this entry »

The Rocket Boys of the National Institutes of Health

June 14, 2011

You have probably heard of the Rocket Boys of October Sky, which is a great movie for upper elementary and middle school kids. But did you know that the National Institutes of Health, NIH, also had their own Rocket Boys? Read the rest of this entry »

Child Development: Myths and Misunderstandings [Podcast]

June 10, 2011

The podcast of Colin’s interview of Dr. Jean Mercer can be downloaded here. She is the author of the book reviewed earlier here. Read the rest of this entry »

Death and Religious Diversity

June 9, 2011

Where does our persona (some would say “soul”) go when we die? Science can’t definitively answer that question, but we can make reasonable guesses about our final destination.

Energy can Neither be Created nor Destroyed – What happens to all that energy in our bodies when we die. If it can’t be destroyed, it has to go somewhere, right? To answer this question, we need to ask what we mean by energy. Then we must ask whether there’s a reasonable real world answer for where this energy is transferred (which there is). And finally, we must ask whether it’s plausible that our biological energy could experience  an afterlife dimension for all eternity. When those questions are answered logically, we see that the natural scientific explanation for death, that there is no afterlife, makes much more sense than anything proposed by religion.

What About Reincarnation – It’s appealing to believe in reincarnation because we have no memories of when we were infants. What if our hard drives are pre-erased so that our new life won’t be contaminated with memories from a previous life? Unfortunately, there’s no good scientific explanation for how this reincarnation would happen. Our ever-increasing population size becomes a huge problem for reincarnation, and it becomes even worse when you factor in the belief of some cultures that we go through several iterations of reincarnation from animal to human. Should we count bacteria? It’s all very implausible, and we should question our wishful desires for such a theory to be true.

Heaven and Hell – There are a few factors that go into this widespread belief. The most obvious reason that heaven is so compelling is that we need to feel that death is not the end… that we will see our deceased loved ones again. The second reason that this idea is popular is that we would like to think that there is a universal form of judgement for those who escape punishment for their crimes on Earth. But, I think we can all agree that most people live their lives in a morally gray way. Isn’t it sad that some people believe that truly righteous, morally centered individuals will burn in a lake of fire because they didn’t accept Jesus Christ as their lord and savior? The crime does not fit the punishment, but more importantly, the reward does not fit the deed. How many jerks and morally depraved individuals are considered to be residents of heaven simply because they asked for forgiveness and accepted Jesus on their death bed? Does this seem reasonable?


The question came up at UU church this past Sunday about how to handle it when your children are confronted by the beliefs of their friends in things like hell. “How can you be an atheist? Don’t you realize that you will go to hell?” Yes, this is a disturbing image for our children to confront, but true religious diversity and tolerance implores us to look at the situation from the perspective of these children who are indoctrinated into their religion. Should it truly be a surprise that these children are concerned that their atheist friend will actually be burned in a lake of fire for all eternity? It’s a terrible image for children to imagine, and we should remember how it must feel to truly internalize the “reality” of hell.

This is why it’s important to make the punishment of hell a non-negotiable for relatives. Grandma wants to share her love of Christ? Fine. Grandma wants to strike fear in the heart of your child by threatening them with eternal damnation? Not fine. And how should kids handle their friends? They should just say that they don’t believe in all that stuff (assuming they don’t), but kids should also be taught to empathize with the reason their friends would be concerned. Accommodation and acceptance are important lessons to be taught to little humanists, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t speak up for their own beliefs when challenged.

So what do atheists think about death? I can’t speak for everyone, but I believe we just die. It’s not the most attractive answer, nor is it the most interesting, but sometimes reality doesn’t match the story in our hearts. What happens when we die? The same thing that happens before we are born… nothing. But, people do live on after death. As cheesy as it sounds, they live on in our memories and they live on in what they’ve created during their short time on Earth. Isn’t that enough?

Parent-Approved Kidnapping and Brainwashing

May 29, 2011

When I was a kid, my church youth group thought it would be a funny idea to show up at my door in a gorilla suit and abduct me in a van. The idea was to snatch up the kids who hadn’t been to church in a while and show us the fun that was happening at one of their picnics. Or at least, that’s how I interpreted it.

Pretty harmless, especially since my Dad forewarned me that a gorilla would be kidnapping me and that I should pretend like I’m surprised. He didn’t want me to freak out – thanks dad!

Unfortunately, my innocent experience is becoming a common tactic with certain reform schools, but these brainwashing academies don’t use gorilla suits. Instead, they just send goons to your bedroom to wake you up and haul you off to their prison program. And instead of having a good time at a party, these children are stashed away at rehabilitation centers where they are emotionally abused (and sometimes worse), force-fed religious propaganda, and social engineered to be church-approved automatons.

Obviously, this sort of outsourcing of parenting is in complete violation of my principles as a parent who wants to raise my children to be freethinking individuals. I’m disgusted with what I’ve read about schools that are part of the World Wide Association of Specialty Programs.

Check out this article on reddit to read a first hand account of a girl’s experience at one of these hideous programs. Despicable!

The Anthropology of Anti-Vax

May 25, 2011

At She Thought, Anthropologist Underground kind of nailed it with this piece about how not immunizing becomes a mark of social status in some parenting communities:

Many women who can afford to stay home gave up careers to do so. Larger society undervalues stay-home moms (as well as teachers and other child care workers). So bright, educated women find themselves in clusters, isolated from prestige, and they bring the work ethic and focus that advanced them in careers to parenting. They must seek status and validation from other members of the stay-home community, and this requires separating themselves from the unwashed masses. (My friend calls this “competitive parenting.”)

My read is that challenging the authority of conventional medicine and MDs is one way of artificially ascribing status to oneself.

Thought provoking, and yet completely unsurprising, really.  Living in LA, I’m surrounded by status moms like this.  They were all over my mom support group listserv, to the extent that I finally had to unsubscribe.  I often posted on here and Rational Moms about these moms.  Reading their posts on the listserv was a great way to take the temperature of the anti-vax community in response to news about the Wakefield scandal or the whooping cough epidemic.  (Ultimately, it proved too frustrating for me to encounter their responses daily, so I left the board.)  I think Anthropologist Underground has pegged the way these people think, to a large extent.  And I wouldn’t confine it to moms.  There are plenty of stay-at-home dads who join the status parenting club as well.

I would add (and I did in my comment) that unfortunately, recent events in our country do lend credence to the idea that a web of financial interests can override public interest.  Just watch The Inside Job to have that sneaky suspicion confirmed.  So I don’t think it’s only a group status/power mentality at work here.  I believe anti-vax parents are egged on by a prevailing cultural suspicion of authority that has been intensified by the events of our time.

Responses to this idea?

How to Look for Preschools

May 21, 2011

We finally found a great school / daycare for Zack, and the relief is palpable in our home.  Zack is back to his happy self, we can now go to work without feeling horrible, and best of all, his behavior issues haven’t surfaced at all in the new place.

In case you don’t have the patience for this whole post, let me just cut right to the heart of it.  In my opinion, there’s only one question you really need to ask yourself when you visit a preschool, and it’s this:  Would you want to hang out with these people for hours and hours?  If so, you’re probably in a good place.  If not, keep looking.

The Montessori School we tried turned out not to be 100% genuine Montessori, but that’s not as important to me as what we discovered about the teachers.  The preschool duo were a couple of old biddies who didn’t have the patience for our son’s difficult transition.  When we spent enough time there to see them in action with kids, we weren’t impressed.

We kept Zack home with a nanny for a bit, which cost us a fortune but bought us peace of mind while we searched for a new place.  We were systematic, but I ended up stumbling across the school we chose by accident, and it’s the nearest one to our house.  I thought we had just about made our choice, and I only went to this one more place to be polite to the director I spoke to on the phone.  I ended up clicking with her instantly, and when I told her the story about Zack’s old daycare, she was upset for me.  Everything she said about the job and about kids seemed right to me.

My husband and I had learned our lesson, so we both went to the school and spent time there, observing the teachers, before we felt comfortable enough to decide.  The teachers speak very respectfully to the kids.  At the new school, you might hear, “Please don’t put those rocks on the slide, dear.  Thank you.  I appreciate that.”  By contrast, at the Montessori school, you might hear, “No running in the class!”  My husband and I speak politely to Zack, so we liked hearing the new teachers.

And the thing is, you can’t fake that attitude.  Not for long anyway.  If you think kids are worthy of respect, you’ll treat them respectfully.  If you don’t, you probably won’t think to put on a show for company.

There was one girl who was very tall, and the teacher asked me to listen to how she speaks.  She looked and sounded like she could be five years old.  ”She’s only three,” said the director, “So we have to remind ourselves that she is just repeating words.”  Since Zack has the same issue (big kid who can talk but is not even three), I felt comfortable that this woman would understand him.

We haven’t seen any aggression emerge in the new setting, but we’re still holding our breath a bit.  My brother’s second boy did have a problem with severe outbursts of anger, and because my brother has two other boys and could compare, it became clear that the middle kid was having genuine trouble.  He’s on Prozac, which has helped him a bit.  Having heard about that situation, I was prepared (and still am) to find out that we might have to get Zack some help.  But so far, his new teachers say he just doesn’t have an aggressive nature.  The problem was something about the environment in his old daycare.  Or maybe the problem was that the old daycare didn’t have room for him and forced him out however they could.  He couldn’t move up on their schedule because of the potty thing, so they started making it hard for us to keep him there.

By coincidence, another boy from the old center ended up in our new school, so Zack has one old friend at the new place, which helped him acclimate.

I was disappointed that we couldn’t get Zack into a Montessori school, but as it turns out, there are no good ones near us that would take him.  The most genuinely Montessori place I found had a toilet training requirement, which has been the root of all our troubles.  The best Montessori schools are a bit of a commute from here, and since we are already commuting to work, it just isn’t practical to head in the opposite direction for school.  I did find a couple schools that labeled themselves as Montessori but were absolute crap holes.  I was perplexed that anyone would leave a kid in those places.

So we’ll see if maybe when Zack turns four we want to try the best local Montessori for a year before he goes to kindergarten.  Until then, he is having a blast at his new school.


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