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Parents, it’s not about us.

Few things are more difficult as a parent than watching your child fail. But for the parents’ emotional health and the child’s future, that is often the best approach.

Lydia Pettigrew, a middle school counselor at Christ Church Episcopal School, said growing a child is a lifelong process. Letting children experience failure can be a very good thing, though Pettigrew always draws the line where there might be a safety issue or when the failure would involve something that is morally or legally wrong.

“We’re really looking at their development,” she said. “What kind of person are we nurturing? What kind of person do we want our child to become?”

Pettigrew said the years from birth to about fifth grade lay the foundation. She uses a car and driver as an analogy for growing children to independence.

“We talk about how when our kids are younger, we are in the driver’s seat – getting them from A to B, telling them where they are going to go, buckling them in their backseat car seat,” she said.

As children move into adolescence, Pettigrew said they move – figuratively speaking – into the driver’s seat with their hands on the wheel as they test out more independence.

“We don’t get out of the car,” she said. “They will make wrong turns. We want them to know that when they make mistakes, we can help them get back on the road. If they failed to put enough gas in the car – they saw the warning light but failed to do it – we are with them along the way. We want to ultimately be able to leave the car. Parenting is about continually shifting roles.”

Instead of rescuing children at every turn, Pettigrew said allowing them to experience failure can help cultivate responsibility and give them internal motivation to do better. Allowing children to experience the natural consequences of their mistakes is critical.

“That’s when we learn so much about ourselves,” she said.

Since everyone makes mistakes, parents should model that by telling children about some of their own failures.

“Some things are not for children, but in some things, let them know when you made a mistake,” Pettigrew said.

Parents need to learn how to be OK if their child fails, according to Pettigrew.

“I find that is really where parents are struggling the most – what it means for the parent’s identity if the child fails,” she said. “Is your identity as a parent tied up in having your children depend on you? Dependency means you are saving them all the time. Your child has been made perfectly in the eyes of God. Your role continues to shift as they continue to grow.”

Pettigrew said parents need to forgive themselves and then move forward with growing independent and accountable adults. When that happens, everyone benefits.

“Those kids whose parents continue to save them, they are the ones who have the highest rate of depression, anxiety and eating disorders,” she said. “It’s astounding and it’s alarming.”

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