I still have the video: My daughter all fluffy Uggs and skinny legs in tights, alone onstage, rendering the breathy, moody version of Adele’s “Someone Like You” that she had been singing for months in the car, the bedroom, the shower.
Her version wasn’t at all what the community theater group wanted for casting “Oliver!” It was looking for big, Broadway-style projection. Someone who could belt it out.
My 15-year-old must have recognized this as we sat listening to others’ auditions. Later, as we drove home, she said she might like to work on the stage crew.
This is my story about letting my kid try and fail. We all have them. Because in this new world of skittish economies, unpredictable weather disasters and gun violence in previously benign places like holiday parties and classrooms, the new watchword for parents is resilience. It’s an essential change from the days of self-esteem and everyone receives a trophy for participating. Encouragement has its place in a child’s life. But in recent years, as we heard reports from college admissions officers and potential employers that parents were sitting in on interviews to coach their precious offspring, helicopter-style, we started to pull back. And that’s a good thing.
Teacher and parent Jessica Lahey published a book in August, “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.” She advises parents to allow schoolchildren to experience disappointment and frustration so they can grow into resilient and independent adults.
Her message has permeated parental conversation, and I often hear it paraphrased as, “Let children fail.”
But that’s too glib. The point isn’t to invite failure, but when failure makes its inevitable way to our doorstep, to acknowledge it without freaking out. I prefer to say, “Let them try,” or another favorite, “Face your fears.”
I was a shy kid, and the only way I developed confidence was to prove to myself that I could do something that immobilized me with terror. Going to Africa with the Peace Corps. Driving a motorcycle. Learning to ski. Getting married.
Resilience is crucial today because the potential for failure and frustration is greater. A Gallup poll this year found a significant decline in the percentage of Americans who consider themselves middle class: down to 51 percent from 61 percent between 2000 and 2008. A Harvard Institute of Politics poll of millennials, ages 18 to 29, asked about their aspirations. Nearly half said the American dream is dead for them.
Another recent poll, by the Public Religion Research Institute, found that 72 percent of respondents believe the Great Recession isn’t over. Technically, it ended in June 2009.
Pundits say this gloomy mood is why GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump is doing so well in the polls. His rants about closing borders and excluding Muslims seem to promise security for people battered by decades of economic transformation.
“Resilience” is showing up in all sorts of contexts: in a discussion of Japan’s economy and Spain’s insurance market. In a White House round-table about the ability of businesses and communities to plan for severe and lengthy droughts. In weighing whether our intelligence infrastructure can adequately detect threats.
For most kids, childhood isn’t a string of successes, but rather a pockmarked path of highs and lows. Our job as parents is to encourage them to try the new and frightening, not to warn them away from risk. Learning to bounce back from a defeat is a trait for a lifetime.
Anne Michaud is the interactive editor for Newsday Opinion.