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Parenting for Competence

Merry Sorrells
So much of my reading lately has to do with preparing our children for the future.  And, so much is about parenting.  My favorite new term is "parenting for competence."  I read those words in The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, by Jessica Lahey.  Well, I don't know about the whole "best parents" thing, but I do think that when we over-shelter our children, we are not setting them up for independence, or for success.  Lahey clarifies the difference between over-parenting and parenting for competence.  In part, Lahey defines "parenting for competence" as parenting for tomorrow and not just for today.  She points out that parents today are so focused on making sure that their children's every moment is flawless and comfortable; we are setting them up to fear failure and discomfort as they move into an independent future. 
Another great book I have been reading on parenting is How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Parenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, by Julie Lythcott-Haims.  She writes, “Did the safety-conscious, academic achievement-focused, self-esteem-promoting, checklisted childhood that has been commonplace since the mid-1980s and in many communities has become the norm, rob kids of the chance to develop into healthy adults? What will become of young adults who look accomplished on paper but seem to have a hard time making their way in the world without the constant involvement of their parents? How will the real world feel to a young person who has grown used to problems being solved for them and accustomed to praise at every turn? Is it too late for them to develop a hunger to be in charge of their own lives? Will they at some point stop referring to themselves as kids and dare to claim the ‘adult’ label for themselves? If not, then what will become of a society populated by such ‘adults’?”
Lahey is a middle school teacher and a writer for The New York Times and The Atlantic; Lythcott-Haims was the longtime freshman dean at Stanford.  Both authors were featured in a recent nprED article, "How are Schools Handling the 'Overparenting' Crisis?"  The premise is, according to Lahey, that parents are "too worried about [their children's] future achievements to allow [them] to work through the obstacles in their path."   If you are a devoted parent, you may not be liking this memo already.  My point is direct and piercing, but I believe it is also critical to the future success of our children.  I have read several articles from the college administrative perspective lately which forecast a grim future if we don’t begin focusing on building emotional skills as we raise our children. 
A recent article in the Washington Post notes that, “Students need real emotional skills. There is a large and growing body of research that suggests that the skills of emotional intelligence—the ability to reason with and about emotions to achieve goals—are correlated with positive outcomes across the entire age spectrum, from preschool through adulthood. Emotions affect learning, decision-making, creativity, relationships, and health, and people with more developed emotion skills do better. Among college students, skills of emotional intelligence are linked to engaging in fewer risky behaviors whereas self-esteem is not.”  College freshman who are missing these skills are manifesting signs of anxiety and depression as they meet the world on their own for the first time.
Parenting was always tricky for me.  Our children were the focus of our lives, and with four, we learned a lot over the years.  As parents, paving the way for their success was critical to us.  But paving the way didn’t necessarily mean clearing all the obstacles out of their path.  Teaching them to deal with the obstacles was truly paving the way.  We learned that it was better to let them stand on their own and fight their own battles.  There were many lessons, often from caring teachers, to help guide us in this direction.
In Middle School, Jenn's advisor started the 6th grade year by asking parents to stop helping their children with their homework.  Completely.  I was appalled.  Jenn had never done her homework without my help and oversight.  I knew instinctively that this was not a good idea.  More than that, I knew it would not work.  I was going to give it a week.  By then this well-meaning teacher would surely figure out that these kids needed their parents to guide and cajole them through their homework.  Jenn surprised me that week.  She managed to plow through her work on her own, and what she couldn't get, she brought in to work on with her teacher.  She actually seemed happy with this arrangement.  I wish I could tell you that I was appropriately pleased with this new development.  Mostly, I was.  But a little part of me was feeling left out.  It was the beginning of the prying off of my fingers, and it hurt.  After all these years of working side-by-side, she didn't really need me any more.  The good news was, Jenn learned how to do her work on her own and became an independent student.  She soon began  to feel the pride of her own accomplishments.  That couldn't have happened with me hovering. 
As all four of our children moved through school we learned to follow the example of our own parents, of letting them fight their own battles.  This worked in mending relationships, instances of unfairness, and negotiations with teachers.  The only time I remember my mom coming to school in protest was once when she didn’t like the grammar curriculum.  Otherwise, we were on our own to navigate life’s challenges.  My sisters and I didn’t question this because we didn’t know any other way.  As a parent, I remember getting my feelings hurt when my children got theirs hurt.  Stepping in to fix things for them, and to make them feel better, was beyond tempting.  It seemed an essential parenting duty.  We often had to bite our tongues, sit on our hands, and cry into our pillows to keep ourselves from swooping in.  We learned that over-involvement in our children's lives comes from both love and fear. Parenting is not for the weak at heart.  But, pushing aside that fear and letting them fail, in the end, allowed us to joy in their triumphs.
I am paraphrasing, but in The Fear of Failure, Jessica Lahey writes that by keeping our kids from experiencing failure, we have blocked the surest and clearest path to their success.  I know that is not our intention as parents; our deepest desire is for our children to be happy and successful.  Learning to “parent for competence” will assuredly help us to give our children the gift of an independent future.

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