Have you ever heard about the importance of making your child “anti-fragile?” I’m guessing none of us would want our children described as “fragile,” but what in the world is “anti-fragile?” Nassim Taleb writes in Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder about things that become stronger under pressure, not things like faberge eggs of course, but things like bones, immune systems… and, one could argue, children.
“Children who never face stress are more likely to respond with anxiety or overreaction because it’s so unfamiliar.” (The Good News About Bad Behavior, 42). We often label those reactions "crumbling," "melting down," or "breaking down."
The irony worth exploring here is that the effort to prevent pain and suffering for our children is likely exactly what makes them the most vulnerable to pain and suffering in the long run. Coupled with this desire to protect from distress is the increasing standard of perfection and production that robs our children of the opportunities for the small failures that lead to greater successes. Schools are pushing for perfection, even in the very low stakes learning stages - are we parents also getting caught in the trap?
We will explore the dwindling opportunities these days for our children to experience low stakes stress and uncertainty. Something this essential to healthy human development and deep learning needs some spotlight and spot checking. We know ourselves that there is little real growth without trial and error, and that there is no trial and error without error. What if there’s no room for error anymore? What happens to our children’s personal growth? Oh, dear. Let’s see how this is happening to our kids and what the heck we might do about it. We must really look in order to see, right?
The Rapid Loss of Low Stakes at School
I would argue there’s almost no space made in today’s conventional educational landscape for low stakes failures. We are increasingly setting our precious children up for high stakes distress. Every grade given every week, sometimes every day, “counts” starting in kindergarten. Kinder and 1st graders are pressured to perform well on every little evaluation, and those performance scores are often posted electronically for parental review (or scrutiny), a further message that these scores matter very much.
This hyper attention to every little performance has even seeped into the pre-graded years. Have you noticed the “improved quality” of the art that comes home these days from preschools and daycares? That level of precision and color coordination clearly required some intense management on the part of an adult. What could be a fantastically messy, age-appropriate art experience must now be not just refrigerator-ready but framable and social media postable. Whose work is that really? Seems like valid cause for pause.
The message in the constant evaluation and the perfect preschool construction paper shamrock is pretty clear: there is no room for failure. None. “These grades will follow you your whole academic career!” “How do you expect to get into college/high school/5th grade with a grade like that?” “Don’t color that all wrong!” The pressure is intense, off balance, artificially inflated, and I would like to argue, quite detrimental.
"Perfection is the enemy of creation"
I taught upper level Spanish at an all-girls high school in the Midwest for four years. My first year, I was boldly approached by several high-performing seniors who informed me that I was ruining their GPA. I was having them speak Spanish in an upper level Spanish class (go figure). Since they had never before been expected to actually speak the language, they were not scoring their typical A++ and were understandably frustrated. I was sympathetic and worked hard to make the class accessible and meaningful. That was not cutting it for them. Instead of being seen as a challenge, my class was seen as a threat to their precious and precarious perfection. I’m not sure any of them liked me. The next year, students knew what to expect and only signed up if they wanted to, well, speak Spanish, not just put the class on their resumes for college.
How did my otherwise “model” students become so averse to challenge? They, of course, had been trained for years, probably since kindergarten, through both subtle and direct messages that prioritized performance over process. Their currency was grades, they had accumulated great wealth, and my “meaningful approach” was robbing them of their earnings. They could not afford to learn something new.
Often-referenced are studies done by Dr. Carol Dwek, the “growth mindset” guru, that show a noticeable effect on the either interest in or fear of challenge depending on how people view themselves and their successes. There seems to be an important difference between a static understanding of "smartness" and a more dynamic view of success as something that comes from hard work. Studies were done with children and puzzles in which one group was told how smart they were for solving a puzzle and the other group was praised for their hard work figuring it out. When offered to do either the same or a lower level of challenge vs. a harder one, guess who didn’t want to risk that “smart” status? That’s right. No thank you for something that might jeopardize my standing, even if the harder puzzle may be more interesting and personally rewarding. Paralysis in perceived perfection.
When people with a fixed mindset fail, it is crushing and deters them from working harder because they see their “smartness” as something that is not changeable. If they fail, they feel they have lost their inherent “smart” identity. In contrast, when people with a growth mindset fail, they don’t see it as a blow to their core essence (their inherent “smartness”). They have control over how hard they work. They are more likely to see success as something that they can do something about, not a “do or die” situation.
Perception and mindset are fascinating and greatly correlated with our and our children’s interest in pursuing challenges, as well as with our ability to recover from setbacks. I highly recommend we all look into this more.
Our children are not blind to the writing on the wall or the report card - they are to perform, constantly, and perfectly. Like robots? Yikes. Adults would try to leave that pressure-cooker situation fast. Children cannot. The performance model starts waaay before it’s developmentally appropriate - and at what cost? Our anxious, frustrated, and potentially fragile children. It is not exactly the pain of constant performance that’s as concerning as its message: they are never allowed to fail.
Entrepreneurs who are terrified of failure, well, couldn’t be entrepreneurs. Every good scientist knows that they must know failure to some day approach success. Real science doesn’t always work out, it can’t and shouldn’t. Real children don’t typically make perfect science fair boards in 4-6 weeks. We will dive into such projects in a moment.
It’s suffocating. 6th grade anxiety. 2nd grade panic attacks. Don’t believe it? Didn’t happen when you were in school? Lucky you. It’s happening right now. Like I said to extroverts who didn’t believe what I was writing about introverts, if you don't believe me about the pressure that starts as early as preschool, go find someone who does. It shouldn’t be hard. I know a whole big bunch of them. Your niece, nephew, grandchild, or even own child may be silently tied up in knots, stuck in a static perfection mindset. Sound like a hostage situation? I've heard more than one young person describe it in those words. I recently helped open a school to provide an oasis from this pressure mess, but that’s another story for another day.
Are We Caught Up In This Web of Perfection?
I would argue that most of us get caught in the trap ourselves. We get ourselves too invested in the small products. Small products: homework, projects, tests - things that simply do not define our children. Their poster presentation is not their opus, nor it it ours. But while many of us have fallen into the perfect project trap, it seems to actually be a double bind. We find that the work our children are assigned is increasingly designed to be more our work than theirs.
My son came home one day from his conventional 1st grade class with project directions that simply could not be accomplished as directed by our fairly typical child in that class. My husband and I tried, as we usually do, to let our child do the assignment himself. What resulted was public shaming. When he didn’t turn in the project because, well, he simply could not do it on his own - he wasn’t independently literate yet and physically couldn't write five sentences on an index card (I'm confident he wasn’t alone in the class), his “treasure box” toy was taken away and we were called to pick up our sobbing child.
My husband spoke with the teacher the next day. She herself feels pressure to give assignments. We got a better sense of the environment our son was expected to navigate and were able to give a better sense of where we stand as parents who obviously believe in education, but don't believe that learning what's important happens through undue pressure.
When the next project directions came home, we were wise to the unwritten directions: this must be completely facilitated by an adult. The expectation is for a standard not in line with most children’s actual abilities. It’s more in line with adult expectations, thus it must involve adults.
In fact, I got to see a lot of other parents’ versions of this next project as they were proudly shared on the class WhatsApp group. Even an incredibly precocious first grader could not have made anything remotely close to those products. They were lovely. They were just not a child’s work. This has become the norm.
Celebrating The Beautiful Mess
So let them make an ugly project? Actually, I propose we take it a step further and use our parental powers to make that ugly mess the gold standard. Developmentally appropriate is the name of the game for proximal zones of development (arguably how we all actually learn new things) and being able to accomplish something on our own is the foundation of confidence that our children need to build their futures.
Wait! You might be saying here, “What’s so wrong with helping my child? At this point you’re expected to. And what’s wrong with a pretty product? A pretty product feels so satisfying, sometimes so important, or often so nonnegotiable!”
What if turning in a polished product was considered an anomaly that clearly broke the unwritten rules? What if we parent-peer pressured each other and the school to let kids do their own project? This likely will involve a very invested PTA.
Letting our kids do their own assignments requires the assignments to be do-able. We should be able to let our kids take care of their own work, struggling perhaps, but not drowning in waters out of their depths. Projects, even a lot of daily homework, increasingly require adult help. We've become so used to it, whether we hate it or sometimes kind of like it. The issue is the message it's sending to our children.
What would the message be to you if every assignment your boss gave you required a supervisor to walk you through it or do it for you?
The necessity of adult intervention is arguably quite structural. Teachers themselves are often trapped in the product pressure cooker, expected to have their students produce results that necessitate adult intervention, or take over. Goodness.
We’re talking about products while we know our kids are process not product. Our young are the definition of process. 5, 10, even 15 years old is not the final word on a finished human being. It’s just not. Neither are any of their products the final word on their human potential. They are all in process. This is important. They must be allowed to have process, not just pretty products.
Can’t. Let. Go. Must. Help. Craft.
The school I currently work at has sponsored a unique craft at several festivals we’ve participated in. It doesn’t look particularly unique at first, but it has consistently proven to be a wildly challenging craft for adults - note that the craft is meant for children. The activity involves using recyclables to create anything, really. I suspect most parents think that the unique part about it is using ‘junk’ instead of new art supplies. But that’s not the radical or challenging element of this activity. We call it our “Self-Directed Recycled Makerspace,” and the express intent is for children to create by following their own direction - self direction. That is the unique part of this seemingly benign, environmentally-friendly craft.
It has been fascinating to watch how incredibly difficult it is for parents (and grandparents) to just let their kids put empty plastic bottles and rinsed out yogurt cups together with tape and glue without it being a polished product. We tell parents: “Take a load off! Everything is safe to use and we really don’t care if they make a ‘mess.’ Just let’em do what they will.” Some can do it (parents that is) and can sit and let their kids create. But the majority really just can’t. In fact, it looks painful for them if they first try not to intervene.
Parents have great ideas: “Why don’t you make a castle?” “Here, let’s tape these two things together…” “How about…?” Somehow they don’t realize they’ve taken over. We see it immediately on the kid’s face. Even if the kid had at first turned for help themselves. When help arrives, they subtly pull away from the project. It’s not theirs anymore.
Maybe the adults want to do an art project themselves. I’ve encouraged many to make their own project but so far no one has ever taken me up on the offer. While I know they believe they are helping, even collaborating, with their child, they are usurping an incredibly low stakes project.
If their kid made the weirdest, messiest, most unidentifiable project that really didn’t stay together… so what? There’s no panel of judges, no swords to throats for perfect creations. It’s a craft at a festival with recycled junk and the sponsors of the craft have explicitly said they don’t care what is used and what is made. There has to be a sociology paper waiting to be written at these events.
The real high stakes part in this low stakes project is honoring a child’s agency and creativity.
What’s Really At Stake
Let them mess up? Or the “F” word - I’m gonna say it - Fail? Gasp! Yes. They must. “But it pains me to watch.” Then don’t watch. I’m serious. It’s low stakes. At times I have to walk away in order to control my urge to creep in and intervene or suggest.
They must fall from small heights instead of being pushed higher and higher with the crippling fear of heights that comes from never having fallen. You’re supposed to fall on your face, not from 50ft, but from your own feet. Several times.
My very first blog post, “Full Confidence,” recommends that our children be allowed to leave the house without a sweater (not in actual hypothermic conditions of course, but those are honestly rare, especially where I’m writing from). If it’s their choice to make, let them choose a mediocre meal from the menu without a side of raised eyebrows or sighing. Let them build a weird yogurt cup castle blob. Low stakes.
Yes, we can even let them pursue interests we don’t fully understand or particularly approve of… anime, a new fashion trend, juggling, local politics... obviously not drug dealing (come on). Why? It can be theirs. Will they be the best at it? It really doesn’t matter. It’s theirs and they will navigate it. This means we also can’t get so excited about it that we take over. Restraint!
They may do a sport, but it is theirs or ours? Sometimes it’s so hard to differentiate! How high do we make the actual low stakes there, come to think of it?
Empathizing Without Infantilizing
Your daughter left her book report at home. Disappointing. What will she do? Not you. Empathize, but don’t rescue. Will the world end? Will the lower grade destroy her chances of college admission and all future happiness? Her happiness is more likely found through the resilience built figuring the forgotten report issue out herself. For real.
Book recommendation: Between Parent and Child. Empathizing without enabling or infantilizing. I’ve found this book incredibly helpful both personally and professionally (and it’s a quick read).
Someone flipped your 12 year old son the middle finger (we’re talking the impulsive angry bird here, not actual bullying). Here’s our moment, wait, his moment. What does he want to do? Nothing? Maybe that’s ok. Does he want you to solve it for him? Maybe a little, but no, not really. Should you go tell the teacher to step in and have the offending friend “say sorry” to your son? Maybe we could just get rid of “Go say you’re sorry” from our repertoire of possible solutions. Not that apologies aren’t important, but it’s pretty important that they’re not micromanaged.
Empathize. That must have felt bad or made him mad. It also put a low stakes strain on him that he needs much more than the bubble wrap we might really want him in or our fantasy of having the good fairies cast a protective spell around him until his 16th or 26th birthday (remember Sleeping Beauty? More a cautionary tale about overprotectiveness than a romance, I think).
It starts even earlier when our toddlers and preschoolers squabble at playdates and playgrounds. Barring life or eye threatening peril, we can let them start figuring out who solves their problems right here. Is it me here in a diaper who navigates this crazy world or mommy and daddy who must constantly jump in to negotiate, placate, or arbitrate?
If we don’t think we’re sending a message, look again, because they read it loud and clear and seem to learn faster than we do. You can see the little tykes who are looking to see if they have their parent’s attention during a tiff. The dramatics are usually a bit more pronounced should they know they can effectively elicit a swift rescue. Yes, our children will cry when their toy is taken by that kid. Yes, yes, they will. The world will not end. In fact, their resilience may begin.
If you feel like you’ll get dirty looks for not stepping in or that people will think you’re “ignoring” a problem, might I suggest we take a cue from the parent who simply says, “I’m a noninterventionist.” Or maybe something more like: “I’m working on letting them work things out. As hard as it is, I know it’s important.” This will communicate that we are intentionally choosing parenting strategies that we’ve really thought about.
“Before jumping in to correct or comment on their behavior, let's ask ourselves whether what they’re doing is causing any harm. They’ll learn more from trying out different strategies than they will if we hand them the right answer.” (Lewis, 82)
In carefully shielding our children from all discomfort, we whisper loudly that they aren’t very capable themselves and will always need us - they can’t even manage the little things for goodness sake! That lack of confidence is the shaky foundation of fragility. Better to help by letting them start figuring some of this interpersonal stuff out now. They can do it. In fact, they must. And we can let them. We can and should help them build skills, sharing our experiences of what’s worked and hasn’t, but not in the heat of the moment - save it for a low-pressure, casual conversation time.
Nothing gives experience except experience
Always telling someone what to do does not allow their own executive functioning muscles to flex and strengthen. Strength comes from use, from some strain, from application. Reading about weight lifting or watching someone workout on YouTube, or even having someone carry the weight right beside you, for you, does not one muscle build. Bummer. I would be ripped.
They’re gonna be nervous. They’re not gonna know what to say. They might not say it right. Yes yes and yes. And, they just won’t learn how to if it’s done for them.
A quick trip to the library before we go
My good friend Erika is a public librarian. Almost every time I’ve been at her library, and you know I’m at the library a lot, I watch the unconscious low stakes takeover in real time. A parent and child approach Erika to ask about a book (usually for something like A.R. - more on that another day). The book is for the child but the parent does all the talking. Erika consistently and intentionally addresses the patron whom the book is for, the child of course.
More times than you might imagine, the adult answers the question directed at their child. We’re not talking two year olds here, though she would direct her question at them as well. It could be an 8 year old or a 12 year old - someone quite capable of understanding and answering themselves. High stakes moment? It’s a library, the children’s section of a library. What better place for a parent to zip it and let their child practice advocating for themselves? We can do it, parents! We probably don’t realize when we’re not!
We’re so practiced in speaking with adults - which is exactly why we don’t need more practice. Wait! Force them? No, my friend, just give them space. Pleasant, non-pressured, positive space. Let the kid speak.
Our children’s worlds are increasingly pressurized and decreasingly open to that messy thing called “figuring it out” that makes us what and who we are.
We can be part of the solution. We can advocate for saner standards, minimize our focus on product and performance, delight in the process, pay attention to the pressures our children feel, and give our children the fabulous freedom to fail and fall and become anti-fragile.
More than any GPA or blue ribbon, resilience is often the greatest predictor of lasting happiness and success. Our children must become resilient enough to handle all the inevitable bumps, birds, blunder, and boulders their lives will hold. We cannot anticipate all of them and should not attempt to throw ourselves in front of them.
If our goal is to some day have children who are independent, self-sufficient, confident and content adults, we gotta give them the time and the tools to become just that. We must let them be just who they are in order for them to find out who that really is.
Does any of this resonate with you for yourself or your child? Do you have any tips to share? Let's collaborate. Comment here.
Some other good articles on the topic:
Jessica Lahey, The Atlantic Jan 29, 2013
Steve Baskin, Psychology Today Feb 12, 2019