Lou Schuler

Author, Journalist, Presenter

Posted 01/16/2011

In Praise of Mediocre Parenting

My two daughters compete in a staring contest

“The way we normally handle this,” the ski-patrol guy explained to me on the phone Thursday night, “is we put your daughter on a backboard, call an ambulance, and send her to the emergency room.”

“Or,” I suggested, “you could give her an ibuprofen for her headache, and maybe suggest she work on her skiing technique.”

We compromised: no ibuprofen, and no emergency room.

Meredith was fine, of course, despite taking a hard fall in her second outing of the season with her middle school’s ski club. It was only her fourth time on skis in her young life, but she’d insisted she didn’t need lessons, and in fact had expressed nothing but overconfidence in her skills leading up to her tumble.

If I were a great parent like Amy Chua, author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, I’d have had my daughter competing on a ski team as soon as she showed some potential. That was four years ago, the first time she tried it. The instructor said he’d never seen a kid pick it up so fast. I wanted to follow through, but when you have two parents and three kids, you don’t push your middle child into things just because you think she’ll be good at them. You wait for her to show more than a passing interest.

But I’m not a great parent. Unlike Chua, my wife and I don’t deprive our kids of playdates and sleepovers so they can become prodigies and virtuosoes. We don’t threaten to take away their favorite toys unless they work harder on their music. It’s all we can do to make sure they finish their homework on time.

Sometimes we know they’re turning in half-assed work, and we’re faced with two bad choices: force them to improve it, meaning that we become the authors of their achievements, and risk having kids who never learn to push themselves to accomplish something meaningful. Or we let them turn in substandard work and suffer the consequences.

We handle it different ways on different days. I hate to see crappy grades on their report cards, but I’d also hate to send three kids out into the world with no experience of rising or falling because of their own efforts.

Chua, a professor at Yale, believes that accomplishments help kids achieve happiness. Sociologist Christine Carter says that’s wrong:

Chua is prescribing life motivated by perfectionism — fear of failure, fear of disappointment. Not only is this a vicious form of unhappiness, but research by Carol Dweck and many others shows that kids who are not allowed to make mistakes don’t develop the resilience or grit they need later in life to overcome challenges or pick themselves up when they do fail. Perfectionists are far more likely to be depressed and anxious, and in college they are more likely to commit suicide.

So my kids won’t play Carnegie Hall.

Meredith, at least, still finds ways to distinguish herself. Take yesterday, for example. At a friend’s annual skating party on the pond next to his house, one kid managed to find the softest spot on the ice and end up with a skate stuck in the freezing water.

Guess which kid.

And yes, she’s fine. As always.

 

  • Great post Lou! As you pointed out there is such a push to have your kid in ‘everything’ – otherwise you’re a bad parent. There is a lot to be said for letting your kid do the things they really like and figuring the rest out. It worked for my parents.

  • Lou my parents were a lot like you in that they allowed us to fail and learn from our mistakes. I think that is the best lesson any child can learn.

  • Thanks Mike and Paula!

    Here’s a response from Ayelet Waldman that Kimberly and I enjoyed:

    http://on.wsj.com/f8mA5J

  • Ah, the difficulties of parenting. My mum used to argue with my spinster aunts because they don’t want us to get reprimanded when we were young. Well, now that I am a parent, with my mum dead and my aunts still alive, I now know what it was like for her every time she disciplines us. My son is just three and sometimes I don;t know whether I am to play the lenient or the disciplinarian mum.

  • Meredith Schuler

    I resent that, dad. I really do. It wasn’t my fault the slope took a sharp turn.

  • Meredith Schuler

    It also wasn’t my fault the ice broke. How was I supposed to know?