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The Great Parenting Debates

Bailing Kids Out -- Is it Really So Bad?

Conventional wisdom has it that we shouldn't bail our kids out of sticky situations or failures, because then they won't learn from their mistakes. You might think that since I've coauthored a book on pressured parents and warned acting on the anxiety we feel when our kids compete, that I'd say "Hold off. Let go. Let your child learn from her own mistakes!"

But as a parent I've found it hard to use this kind of "tough love." The pull, at times almost physical, to jump in and help whenever our kids are feeling left out, have missed a goal, or are suffering in any way is very strong. In fact it's so strong that I question this conventional wisdom. Yes, sometimes we should step back and let our children learn from their mistakes -- but at other times, looking carefully at particular circumstances, we should bail our kids out.

Let me give two examples. The first happened when my son was in eighth grade and handed in an assignment late. He'd forgotten to take it to school, and rode his bike back late in the afternoon to slip the homework under the door of his English teacher. She stuck to her rules and graded his work down for lateness. I felt bad for Zach, but I didn't go ask the teacher to take pity on him, pleading that after all, he had done his work, but just forgotten to hand it in on time. The stakes weren't great -- he wasn't about to fail the course -- and empathy along with talking about ways to remember to hand things in on time was the best way to support him.

The second story is about a friend of mine. Her daughter auditioned for a high school music magnet program , and wasn't chosen. The flute-playing daughter burst into tears at the rejection. She really, really wanted to be in the program! OF course, my friend felt terrible! And so, with her daughter's permission, she spoke to the music teacher and asked for a second audition. He agreed and this time her daughter made it into the program.

Was my friend one of those"pushy" parents we hear about? Is she an overinvolved "helicopter parent?" Perhaps she should have let her daughter learn from the rejection that she hadn't practiced enough, so that she would redouble her efforts and try out again the following year.

Well, here's what happened: the young musician thrived in the magnet program. She moved from being a so-so player to one of the best flautists in the school, and playing the flute became one of the very best things in her life. She made good friends in the program, and has become so interested in music that she's taken every music theory course the school offers. In short, the magnet program has been wonderful for her.

Her mother's intervening and "bailing her out" -- which in fact I'd call "supporting her daughter" -- didn't violate the girl's autonomy, since she gave her mom permission to seek the second audition. Unlike the situation with Zach, the stakes were high, since missing the first year of the magnet would have meant missing a full year of music education and friendships. And perhaps, rather than learning the lesson that her parents would bail her out from failure, the girl learned that persistence -- not taking no for an answer -- is the best way to achieve your goals.
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