“Mom? I think I did something wrong in class today. I think I cheated.”
Three years ago, as she was laying down to sleep, my then eight-year-old daughter whispered those words. Slowly, the full story came out. It was her second week at a new school, one that was far more academically rigorous than her previous school. The teacher had told the children to study for a quiz that week, but my daughter didn’t know then what “study” meant, as tests at her previous school weren’t exactly challenging. The next day the students had a quiz on the continents, and my daughter wasn’t prepared. She was second-guessing her answers and saw a fellow student subtly look into their desk to check the map of the continents they had filled out in class earlier in the week and were supposed to have studied. My daughter followed suit, peeked into the map in her desk, and cheated on her quiz.
I wouldn’t have known about this had she not told me. She wouldn’t have told me had she not felt a stirring of guilt and remorse. After a brief pause to collect my thoughts (and wonder why parenting books don’t have a section on “What to Do When Your Child Admits They Cheated in Class”), I told her that, as she already knew, what she did was wrong and that she needed to confess her academic dishonesty to her teacher.
The next day she came home with wide eyes and a trembling lower lip as she recounted how the teacher was very disappointed and gave her a zero on the quiz. Internally, I started to fume, thinking the consequence seemed very harsh, especially for a student who willingly confessed something that likely would have gone unnoticed. After my anger wore off, I slowly came to realize that she would learn far more from the experience if the consequences were significant (and a bit painful). She did the crime and would serve the time.
She went on to have a rather wonderful third grade year, and her teacher later praised her for her bravery, honesty, and integrity both for admitting her wrongdoing and for learning quickly from her mistake. She learned to truly study for a quiz or test. She learned that guilt and shame are nagging, soul-crushing feelings that are far worse than a bad grade.
Recently at a back-to-school meeting, one of our school administrators encouraged parents to “let your children struggle.” She encouraged us to support and encourage our students, but not to rush to rescue them.
Our kids need to struggle. Only through struggling will they learn resourcefulness and resilience. If our kids are continually rescued and coddled, we are depriving them of the much-needed skill of becoming responsible for themselves. When our kids mess up and have to fix their mistakes or live with the consequences of their mistakes, they start to take ownership of their choices and ultimately of their lives.
Don’t we want our children to fall more onto the softer, giving ground of adolescence than to take their first falls onto the hard, unforgiving ground of adulthood? Isn’t a failing grade in middle school far easier to recover from than a failing grade in college? Aren’t the consequences of forgetting to turn in an assignment in fifth grade far less severe than forgetting to turn in the rent check as a 19-year-old?
When we continually rescue our children or fight their battles for them, we are slowly eroding their independence and confidence. Our actions tell them that they are not capable of solving their own problems. College students today are experiencing record levels of anxiety and depression, in part due to parents who, while well-intentioned, give those students little opportunity to struggle, fail, and mess up. Removing obstacles from their path leaves our children dumbfounded and helpless, void of coping mechanisms and the grit needed to persevere.
I am personally guilty of failing to let my kids suffer the natural consequences of their negligence and forgetfulness. I’ve brought forgotten homework and lunchboxes up to school. Inspired by this “Let Them Struggle” battle cry, we recently sat down as a family and laid out some new ground rules. They now understand that they are responsible for making sure their backpacks are fully packed with all needed assignments, water bottles, lunchboxes, and snacks each day. I will not bring forgotten items up to the school. We also discussed how to handle homework when they have forgotten to bring home a needed textbook or write down their assignments, understanding that I will not track down homework for them.
Already my son has forgotten a snack and assignment, and thus, already he has gone hungry on the forgotten snack day and missed recess to complete his forgotten assignment. I’ll admit that seeing the assignment sitting on the counter after I dropped him off, knowing I could run it up to the school, gave me pause and a bit of anguish. Yet I took comfort in knowing that he’d learn far more from his mistake than my rescue.
Letting your kids struggle is hard. Watching them mess up is hard. But when we overprotect our kids, we underprepare them for the looming adult world.