Parenting From a Place of Fear

There are two universal myths far too many parents believe: One, overall success in life is determined by which college their child attends and, two, experiencing failure is bad for their child’s self-esteem.
When the news of the college admissions scandal broke, I spoke with Dawson’s Head of School Dr. Carola Wittmann. She received a flood of text messages and emails from former colleagues at the high schools where she once worked. Here’s the interesting part: Of the many messages she received, none of them expressed shock nor surprise; she noted that you would be hard pressed to find faculty, counselors, or administrators in any high-performing high school who were surprised or blindsided. Most of them probably did what she did: sighed heavily, shrugged her shoulders, and thought, sounds like business as usual in the high school pressure-cooker.

One of the Challenge Success program’s most significant research studies found that which college a child attends has little to no effect on their overall career and life success. The exception to this rule is only for children living in underserved communities, where researchers found that the name of the college did enable these students to gain more and better post-college career opportunities. This past weekend, the New York Times featured an insightful article on “snowplow” parenting, which is exactly what happened when the parents involved in the admissions scandal made the choice to lie and cheat – behavior they would likely never condone in their child  in order to guarantee their child was admitted to a top college that, based on the child’s merit alone, would have not happened otherwise.

The Challenge Success paper and NYTimes article are connected to the college admissions scandal by a common thread: They remind us of the serious consequences that can occur when we parent our children from a place of fear and anxiety, otherwise known as “the fear of missing out” and “the fear of my child experiencing failure and/or consequences”. The parents involved in the college admissions scandal bought into the fallacy that anything less than admission to USC or Stanford for their child would have been, you guessed it, a big failure. But these fears do not suddenly surface when children are preparing for college. Unfortunately, parents’ belief that their children must receive or experience the best of everything in order to be successful in the long term  and never truly experience failure or consequences – as well as their willingness to rationalize the parenting choices they make to guarantee the best for their child, is increasingly commonplace from preschool to post-college. 

When parents internalize the dual messages of “fear of missing out” and “fear of my child experiencing failure/consequence”, their parenting choices begin to reflect this mindset, often without them realizing it. It starts with seemingly innocuous choices, such as requesting a different teacher than the one to whom their child is assigned, putting the finishing touches on a science project because their child did not complete it in time, or running missing homework to school “just this once” so their child’s grade doesn’t suffer. These may be occasional one-offs but, more typically today, we often see this parenting behavior quickly develop into a pattern: requesting specific teachers year after year, over-involvement in their child’s school projects or heavily editing their school essays, making their child play sports every day after school to improve his or her competitive advantage, enrolling in Kumon or similar programs to give their child an academic edge, or even debating with a school whether there should be a consequence for certain behaviors.

The more insidious factor here is how many adults also believe that if they do not provide the absolute best for their child then they’ve failed as parents. But when a child experiences failure or rejection, and if that experience is approached by the adults in their lives  whether they are parents, coaches, teachers, or mentors – with love and understanding rather than fear or anxiety (which can often express itself to a child as anger and disappointment), that child will begin to equate failure not with inadequacy, but with a growth mindset that sees failure as simply another opportunity to learn. Fact: Cultivating a growth mindset, above all else, is one of the greatest indicators of long-term success and happiness in life. Also a fact: Shielding your child from the growth that happens when they experience failure, consequences, or rejection can have the opposite effect.

Rather than parents worrying about ensuring “the best” of everything for their child, I argue the  “best” thing parents can actually do for their child’s future success is to teach them not to fear failure. The next “best” thing we can do is not treat it as lip service but model it for them. When was the last time you shared with your child your own experiences with failure, like the time you didn’t ace the big test, win the championship trophy, or score the job you really wanted? How did you handle those moments as a child, and how did the adults in your life handle them? Knowing now how important it is for children to develop a resilient mindset about failure, and knowing that this is a tested and true indicator of lifelong success (no matter how you measure it), what would you have done differently? When was the last time you allowed your child to see you not as a responsible adult or parent or teacher, but as a fallible human being who, in spite of your personal experience with failure, turned out pretty okay?

Here’s the other important piece: None of us at The Alexander Dawson School expect parents to do this alone. Even though we place tremendous importance on educating current and prospective families about who we are as a school community and what we believe is best for children, how you approach failure and the development of growth mindsets at home is very personal. Yet, every Dawson parent should know we believe deeply in these philosophies: Students need a positive attitude about failure to nurture a growth mindset and build resilience. They are part of the reason we became a Challenge Success school, why we are always evaluating homework loads and class schedules, and why we talk with our families and students about the importance of downtime, wellness, and sleep. As important to your child’s overall development is what we do each day in the classroom to reframe what it means to fail. This emphasis comes not from intuition or a “we know best attitude, but from one of the Dawson Core Beliefs that our faculty and staff model on a daily basis: We are a true learning community. Dawson’s faculty and administrators model lifelong learning by investing in educational best practices, advances in technology and relevant world development. In other words, we do our homework.

Here's how this Core Belief (and our research) plays out in the classroom: we use design-thinking principles in almost every subject (try-fail-and-try-again); place more emphasis on building the skills of collaboration, citizenship, and teamwork than on individual achievement; recognize and honor the ways in which each student learns (and therefore, how they also learn to cope); and we are working to improve our message to students that their voices truly matter. We, as adults, need to do a better job of listening and learning from our students because it is vital they feel heard, that their opinions are valued and that they believe they can effect change in their school community. What the sum of all this means is, all of us at Dawson function as both teachers and students, and we are always learning and growing.  

The college admissions scandal, which has shone a bright light on the lengths parents will sometimes go to guarantee certain outcomes for their children no matter the consequence, and the ensuing blogs, research articles, and opinion pieces that have followed, all serve as an important reminder that our children’s long-term success in life rests not on removing obstacles for them, but in letting them figure out how to do it themselves. Challenging experiences and the resulting resilience, growth, and confidence that comes from overcoming them are the purest and most honest guarantee of long-term success in life. As we teach at Dawson each day, failing really is just another word for learning.

By Megan Gray
Chief Communications Officer

In addition to being Dawson's Chief Communications Officer, Megan is the mother of two Dawson students, one in seventh grade and one Dawson alumna, so she occasionally knows whereof she speaks. She is passionate about the kind of education Dawson provides and is willing to stand on her soapbox whenever she's asked. She also likes to read articles and books on education and listens to way too many podcasts. Her current book recommendations are How to Raise an Adult and The New Education

The Alexander Dawson School

The Alexander Dawson School at Rainbow Mountain, an independent school located on 33-acres in the community of Summerlin, is Nevada’s first Stanford University Challenge Success partner school for students in early childhood through grade eight. Utilizing the unique Challenge Success framework, Dawson uses research-based strategies and programs that emphasize student academics, wellbeing, and a healthy school-life balance to create more engaged, motivated, and resilient learners and leaders. At Dawson, students achieve their individual potential while savoring life and meeting the challenges of the world.