I know, I know. That might be a startling statement. Hang in there with me.
When our kids start a new school year, we embark upon a new chapter of their young lives. New classes, new teachers and new schedules give us parents a chance to reflect on the people they are growing to be.
I hope she makes the volleyball team.
I hope she gets all As.
I hope she finds friends who treat her well.
This year, I hope that our girls fail. Well, at least sometimes.
In an era of high-stakes everything, this might sound crazy. We want what’s best for our children. We want them to be happy and successful. We want them to avoid mistakes and mess-ups.
Despite our best intentions, however, our girls are crumbling under the weight of a growing – and often an unattainable – set of expectations. Academic pressures loom large, and most girls feel loads of pressure to get good grades. Girls equate success with being exceptional academically and involved in a range of activities and by being seen by others as beautiful, thin and popular. Not only do girls report more school-related stress than boys, but they are also more likely to feel anxiety about peer relationships and getting along with teachers and other adults in their lives.
What if, this school year, we send our girls a message – that we hope they fail?
Alongside the too-perfect, digitally-manipulated Instagram images and the carefully-engineered lives of the stars, there is an undercurrent starting. We adults are starting to talk more about failure. From business leaders to Brené Brown, we are allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and acknowledging that life can get messy sometimes. Why not show our girls that failure – even an “epic” fail – is welcomed in your house?
Why welcome failure? Why welcome bumping up against your limitations? Because life is full of struggles, unpleasant surprises and disappointments. We wouldn’t be doing our jobs as parents if we didn’t allow our girls to experience letdowns to learn that they can feel the discomfort of failure and emerge intact. Failure can lead to resilience.
What does this look like?
It means that we redefine success and failure. Ask your girls what it means (to them) to succeed and fail. Girls who are bright, in particular, tend to believe talents are innate, while boys feel they can develop them through effort and hard work. Talk about what you learn from success, and what you can learn from failure. What does it feel like when they accomplish a task that is easy, versus the thrill of doing something you didn’t think you were capable of? What if success is more about effort and less about outcome? What stories can you share about your own failures, and how you learned to be gentle with yourself? Agree upon a different definition in your household and keep it in mind when you are attending her sporting events and reviewing her grades.
It means we encourage risk-taking. The teenage brain is hard-wired to take risks, but girls can be reluctant to try, because the risk of failure seems too great. What if we encourage our girls to take responsible risks? What if we take them skydiving or ziplining, in addition to taking them shopping and to get pedicures? While we are at it, what risks can we take ourselves, so that our girls can see us walk the walk? If we give our girls chances to experience that dopamine rush, they will be less likely to seek out other less parent-supported risks.
It means we let go. We remember back to all the stupid things we did as teens (there’s a reason that e-card about being glad we grew up before social media always seems to be circulating). We remember to have compassion for our girls. We let go of our expectations, and remind ourselves that she must find her own way, and that it’s not always smooth sailing. We send our girls (and boys, for that matter) a message that whatever choices they make, we are there to support them, even when their decisions appear to lead to a mistake.
It means we become a coach and a cheerleader. We are no longer (sometimes literally) driving anymore. We are on the sidelines, coaching our girls. We are helping open their eyes to the possibilities, helping evaluate options and ready to pick them up when they fall, if from a distance. We are helping them realize that emotions are temporary and that we are all imperfect. We are helping our girls listen to their inner voice, so they are internally motivated, instead of worrying about pleasing others. We are helping them appreciate hard-earned successes and their own strengths and weaknesses. We are talking through the benefits of challenge and grit. What better place to learn from mistakes than when they are still under our patient and compassionate roof?
Let’s make this school year a good one by easing the burden on our girls, allowing for the freedom to make blunders and freeing them to uncover the unique and special person they truly are.
Barb Steinberg, LMSW is a teen life coach and workshop facilitator who transforms the lives of adolescent girls and the adults who care about them. Barb will be leading a workshop for parents of girls in 4th grade and up, Empowering Your Daughter, on Saturday, October 17th from 9:30-11:30am.