Why I Let My Son Fall & Fail

will_playgroundWill loves the playground. And not just because it’s a fun way to spend a Sunday afternoon, but also because it’s challenging.

The one by our house has a cool plastic climbing structure that really makes Will work. It starts off vertical with holes throughout for hands and feet, before it twists down horizontally and then back up again before reaching the platform on the other side. It not only forces Will to think about where his hands and feet go, but also whether he wants to traverse the top portion or go underneath.

The result is many attempts that fail spectacularly.

As you can see in the picture, slips and falls are guaranteed as he learns the best ways to make his way along the structure. When we went yesterday, he fell off close to a dozen times before he finally made it. As you can see, the highest distance he can fall from is roughly 4 feet, and the entire ground is soft mulch that makes for a cushioned landing. So while I offer him plenty of cheerleading and advice when he asks for it, that’s the extent of my involvement. Because as long as you make sure they’re safe (which Will was), I think it’s important for parents to let kids find their own way without babying them.

Today there were a bunch of kids there with their parents. One mother of a boy who looked to be about 2 years old caught my eye, mainly because she couldn’t take her eyes off Will. Each time he fell she winced and looked disapprovingly in my direction. I’m used to that, as overprotective “playground moms” are unfortunately pretty common. But I did not expect what happened next.

Will tried to go on the left side to climb, got halfway there, and thought twice about his decision. So he attempted to go back to the platform to start over, then slipped but caught himself. The end result was him hanging from the top with one tippy-toe on the platform as he struggled to make it back to where he started. He whimpered a little bit and called out for me, but I told him he was doing great and he could figure out on his own if he stayed calm.

And that’s when “Playground Mom” decided she had enough because she walked briskly over to him and said “You need help sweetie? Give me your hand.”

I was furious but not exactly shocked since I had seen it building to that point for the previous 10 minutes. But I still wasn’t about to let it go without addressing it.

“Excuse me, but he doesn’t need your help and he’s fine. I’m his dad and I’m right here.”

“Well clearly he does need help because he’s about to fall,” she said in full condescending mommy tone.

“Maybe, maybe not. But either way he’ll be fine. I can parent my own kid.”

Then, just as she looked like she would blow her top, my boy came through big time and shut her up in the best way possible. Still hanging there, he politely said “No thanks, I can do it myself!” and proceeded to climb his way back to the platform without help from anyone.

“Imagine that,” I muttered with a victorious smirk as Mrs. Know-it-all Mommy McMommerson huffed away, no doubt to get more bubble wrap to insulate her poor son from every bump and bruise on the horizon.

Look, you can parent however you want but I have multiple problems with what happened. First of all, it’s just another in a long list of examples that show some moms think they know everything — especially compared to dads. To openly step in and insert herself with me — the kid’s actual parent — right there? Maybe she would’ve done the same to another mom, but I doubt it. It’s a shitty attitude and I’m unbelievably sick of it.

Second, we are raising a generation of kids who know nothing about taking risks. Even on the monkey bars and playgrounds of America, the minute they hit some turbulence and adversity mommy and daddy are there to rescue them — and give them a trophy in the process. It makes me ill. My son won’t be great at everything, but he’s going to try his damndest. Because every attempt ends in failure until it doesn’t. Every fall builds determination to finish. Every setback is a lesson learned that gets you one step closer to your goal.

I let my son fall — and fail — so his future accomplishments will be that much sweeter and well-deserved.

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28 thoughts on “Why I Let My Son Fall & Fail

  1. How inappropriate of her! Glad Will gave her the best possible response, extra points for nice manners! Kids do need to be given room to fail and fall (within safe limits of course).

  2. Bravo! loved this post. You are my kind of parent. We’d get along well at a playground 🙂

    but just to be clear,( thought I know you know this, and your general statement was for the effect of getting your point across).. not ALL moms are helicopter parents 🙂

    This blog post I wrote on similar play experiences for my kids might be an enjoyable read for you 🙂

    http://nurturedmother.ca/2009/08/letkidsbeownoccupationaltherapist/

    No MommyMcMommerson,
    @superADDmom on twitter

  3. Aaron, This is a really great piece about an issue that constantly arises at the playground. We actually did an entire podcast on it. In a nutshell, even if we’re mere dads – we know what’s right for our kids. They have to learn to take risks, and moms are too quick with the parenting intervention and advice. Helicopter parenting is mollycoddling – Dads practice Drone parenting.
    Mark Staufer recently posted..A little insight…My Profile

  4. SuperADDMom: Thank you. And yes, not all moms are like this and not all dads are risk-takers. I never meant to imply that and was limiting my criticism to the moms such as the one I encountered on the playground. But in my (albeit limited) experience, I’ve never had a dad come up to me in public and criticize my parenting skills or imply they know better than I do. Only mothers.
    Daddy Files recently posted..Why I Let My Son Fall & FailMy Profile

  5. I don’t know if we can take this example as “we are raising a generation of kids who know nothing about taking risks.” As parents, we’re always faced with alternatives, and most of the times we act by intuition. Sometimes I feel, like you do, that I harm my kids if I step in to help them, because it makes them too dependent, and at other times I feel like I make them feel they can’t trust me (and by implication, authority figures and society in general) if I don’t jump in to help. It all depends on the situation and on the way my intuition tells me to act. We want to raise independent kids, sure, but we also want those independent kids to know they’re independent, but not alone. I’m not saying that’s how your kid feels, just that you probably have your own “red line” that makes you jump in too, and jumping in when you feel it’s necessary doesn’t mean you’re raising a dependent kid.

    Saying that, it’s still a great story, and that mom was unbelievable rude, don’t get me wrong.
    Oren recently posted..The Ultimate Star Wars QuestionMy Profile

  6. I am with you 100% on this. I believe Will will be better off because of this type of parenting. I like the way you handled the mom as well.

  7. Once again you hit the nail on the head Aaron. And I wouldn’t have expected any less from you. Although I am a bit surprised that you didn’t lay into her, but then again Will was right there. lol I will be sharing this on FB so that everyone knows that this is how you teach your children to be true winners.

  8. Thanks Adam. Believe me, I felt like laying into her but a couple of things stopped me. 1) It was a crowded playground and all the kids were there, I didn’t want to get into it in front of them all. And 2) her husband was a big guy. =)
    DaddyFiles recently posted..Why I Let My Son Fall & FailMy Profile

  9. devil’s advocate here. Aaron you are a few years ahead of this mom. She might have only one child and that child by your estimate is 2. She has a few years to go before she gets where you are in parenting. I really don’t think she meant any disrespect to you. She is just not as far along in rearing a child as you are. She, too, will hopefully learn. Mistakes are made along the way.

  10. I just discovered your blog through The Good Men Project. Thanks for writing. I have a 2 1/2 year old boy, and the playground shaming I get from a predominantly “mommy” domain is very annoying. Thank you for putting my thoughts and feelings into words.

  11. My husband likes to tell people: the first child is like glass; it hits the ground and breaks. The second child is plastic: it hits the ground and remains intact. The third child is like rubber: it hits the ground, and bounces back.
    Sounds like you’re ahead of the game. 😉
    That mother was incredibly rude.
    It will be interesting to see, though, if your coming child is a girl, whether you’ll treat her any differently.

  12. Rivka: It’s a good question. I have no idea what to do with girls. I’ve never even had a sister. I’d like to think I will treat them the same but I guess I won’t really know until/unless it happens and I have a daughter. We’ll see. Either way the only thing I can promise is that I’ll be honest about it all.
    DaddyFiles recently posted..Why I Let My Son Fall & FailMy Profile

  13. I saw this post in my RSS feed and decided to check it out. I’m glad I did- I like what you have to say about kids and risk-taking! I’m all about letting my overly-cautious 4 year old take risks, especially since it’s so rare that he wants to, and so important for development.

    But one of my experiences on the playground was similar, yet opposite, to yours. My son looks like every other kid there, but he has dyspraxia, a neurological condition affecting his motor abilities and coordination. So we go to playgrounds on a daily basis to practice his skills. A good day is one where he can figure out how to climb up a ladder. A typical day is one where his brain can’t coordinate with his body to figure out how to climb down. And this is day after day. So after I give him the time to figure it out, but before he starts into an irreversible panic, I calmly talk him through the steps he needs to take, one by one. Mind you, I don’t physically rescue him- I just fill in the steps his brain isn’t sending. You talk about your son being physically safe in the park that day to take a risk and possibly fail, but for my son, it’s mental safety. He needs to know I’ll be there to help him out when his brain can’t. If I don’t, I run the very real risk he’ll refuse to go to the playground again. And that would be a very big fail on my part.

    So imagine my surprise one day when some dad standing nearby patronizingly tells me to ‘just let him figure it out’, like I was some coddling mommy who didn’t want her precious baby bird to fly. Did I want to go ballistic on him and scratch his damned eyes out? Of course, I did. But did I? Of course not. All I had to do was ask him if he knew anything about dyspraxia- anything at all- and he was embarrassed enough and stepped off.

    After I calmed down, I realized I could have (and should have) handled the situation better. Parenting, as we all know, is hard enough. No one needs the additional stress of feeling judged (not to mention the mental energy it takes to be the judger).

    I wish that we could all agree to give everyone the benefit of the doubt that they’re doing what’s best for their children in that moment. And if you can’t think of a friendly way to say something at the playground, then, please… keep your mouth shut.
    Heidi recently posted..Dyspraxia, SPD and Things We’re Not Going to Try (But Probably Should)My Profile

  14. Heidi: Wow, that’s shitty of that guy. Again, I just can’t imagine actually being so rude as to criticize someone’s parenting right in front of them. Sure I might do it in my head or when I’m out of earshot, but at least have the common decency to let people be and parent the way they want to parent. Because you never know what’s going on with another kid, as you so aptly proved.

    I’ll never understand why parents aren’t content with parenting their own kids and not casting judgment on everyone else.
    DaddyFiles recently posted..Why I Let My Son Fall & FailMy Profile

  15. What an amazing dad….so insightful! We need more dads like that to remind us moms sometimes that we don’t help our kids grow by always rescuing them….Bravo!!

  16. I remember going to the park as a kid and if there were parents there at all, they were usually sitting on the bench reading or chatting with another parent. I don’t remember there ever being grown ups in the play area unless an injury left a child unable to walk. In 30 years we have went from one extreme to the other and finding a moderate place isn’t easy.

    I was at the McDonald’s playland with my kids a while back and such a mother was talking loudly,(to ensure I hear) to her son who wanted to take his happy meal toy up in the play area because my boys were allowed…she said to him, loudly, “You can’t take up your toy because you might break or lose it and their mom shouldn’t let her boys take their toys up either”….I responded in kind, “No, I don’t care if they break or lose their 20 cent toy from McDonalds, if they do, they learned a lesson and I don’t have to worry about stepping on it at home but really, thanks for the kind words”.

  17. I remember being at the park and inadvertantly overstepping on a dad.. I didn’t mean to. I was there with my guy, who was 2 at the time, and there was a boy, I’d say 5 years old and his father was watching him, and shouting at him encouragments from far off to the side.
    The boy was walking along the rope nets. He couldn’t figure out how to get across, but he seemed to be doing ok. He was in the middle, when he sort of slipped and got tangled up. His father did nothing, which is cool, but i was standing much closer than his dad was, and when he slipped, I honestly thought he was in danger of taking a header and he was high up.. and instinctively i reached out and put my hand on his back to steady him (i had to reach up on my tip toes). that’s all i did. I asked if he was good. He said thank you to me for steadying him and went on his merry way, and so did i.

    his father marched up to me (Im 5’0, and I look 12. he was over 6 feet and huge) and got in my face screaming that his kid was fine, and that i didn’t need to stick my overmothering nose in other peoples business. the playground was busy, and everyone stopped and stared. I wasn’t stepping in because i thought he was a bad parent. I honestly thought he was going to fall and hurt himself. I just steadied him. and he gratefully thanked me. I explained that, but he just freaked out more. told me to go bubblewrap my kid and play elsewhere.. next thing you know, his kid actually did fall, hurt himself, and they had to leave with a bloody nose and a sore head.. ive learned to just keep out of any business and try to turn a blind eye to kids even if they look in danger of falling and hurting themselves. I’m too scared of being beat up by another parent.

  18. KBear: That’s exactly why I never confronted her nor did I raise my voice. I’m sure she didn’t have evil intentions, but at the same time I needed to let her know that what she was doing wasn’t acceptable. A simple “He’s fine, thank you” from the dad would’ve sufficed, but getting up in your face and screaming at you was uncalled for.

    To be honest, I helped a couple of kids down off the top of the playground just a few days ago. They were screaming to get down and no one was responding, so I helped them. The dad eventually got off his phone and came over, but that’s a far cry from me intervening when he’s standing right there.
    DaddyFiles1 recently posted..Many Women Don’t Support Stay-at-Home DadsMy Profile

  19. Yay! I’m with you! The only time I look at my kids at the park is to see if 1) they are still in the park area 2) they are not hurting another child and 3) if they are genuinely hurt and calling for me. Other parents have noted my approach but thus far have managed to keep the negativity out of their observations. I do giggle a bit watching some parents at the park, they follow their kids around in a poised ready to catch them type of fashion, shadowing their ladder climbs and wincing as they reach the top of the slide. They are constantly advising their kids of their limitations, such as “don’t climb up there, you won’t be able to get down”, “that ladder is slippery and you will fall”, “you can’t hold yourself up on those monkey bars” and on and on it goes. My advice to other parents, stand back, chat with the other mums and let your kids have some space!!
    Cate recently posted..Why I Let My Son Fall & FailMy Profile

  20. Dude,
    You are AWESOME! I do the same with my boys but I am the mom. My husband at times is opposite. However, we seem to be opposites with parenting and things of that nature. I feel like the guy at times as well. He cried when they went to Head Start and I did the happy dance all the way home. I love your posts and have laughed out loud for about two hours.

  21. Love this post!!! I am a mommy who learned only after having my second child to take my hands off. I used to be helicopter mom at the playground. I KNEW it wasn’t the way I should be, but it just took me some time to let go. As I watched my son, I began to trust his abilities and instincts (along with the cushioned playground floor ) and was able to let go. I notice that my son is better for it and as a teacher, I truly understand that this helps him developmentally. On the other hand, I will say that this is different from not watching your kids at the playground. I know that you were closely watching your kid, but I saw a few commenters post about that, and that’s a whole different ballgame. Even though I am hands off, I do watch my son as I sit on a nearby bench to ensure that he is cool. I see so many kids doing inappropriate things or treating other kids badly when their parents are not watching. That really irks me. There have been a couple times when Ive had to speak to another child because they were about to hit my child. I don’t like doing that AT ALL but I had to since the parents were nowhere in sight! In one instance someone’s child was being bullied verbally and physically by a bigger kid and neither parent was in sight! I felt very awkward intervening but it came to a point when it became physical and I had to. VERY uncomfortable! So with all that I say: parents be hands off with your kids but please supervise them properly. Hands off, eyes on !! 🙂

  22. Oh, as a mother who behaves similarly to you with my 2 year old twins, trust me: she would have done the same thing to anyone. Ugh. People who believe that they NEEEEED to do it, always will.

  23. Great post! It is very important to let kids “figure things out” on their own. They thrive and feel confident in their own abilities…. Also, another point Ive noticed is parents intervening when children are misbehaving. Hello! When are the kids ever going to learn how to deal with others’ negative behavior if we do it for them? This is why when kids actually go to school, they have no idea how to deal with bullies and others whose behavior is inappropriate. Its’s tough, but rescuing them even in those situations just sets them up for being able to defend themselves. Instead, we have to give them the tools they need beforehand to be able to deal with those kinds of people. It is completely different if the child is being beaten or is in any other situation where there is a physical altercation, tho. Ive worked in a daycare and have seen it many times… very sad… the poor child’s face when the other would take the toy or shout at them, call them names… the child would freeze! Had absolutely no idea what to do! Not even to get an adult! So we would train the children in this regard, but many had already gone through similar situations in the playground and were just “afraid” of the other children. Took a loooong time for them to start acting on what they had been taught to prevent themselves from being bullied or mistreated.

  24. It may have been a sexist thing but it’s happened to me too. Mums who can’t handle parents (of either gender) letting their kids learn from their mistakes and take minor risks. It annoys me too. Enjoyed reading your post.
    the monko recently posted..Making Early Literacy FunMy Profile

  25. How in the world did you not blow your kid at her!?! I myself have caught those looks with my son. Even my friends without kids jump before I do. I always know where he is an what he is doing. Let the kids explore and learn for crying out loud.

  26. Bravo! I, one of many, that am grateful TO and FOR your intention and attention to raising your children. Thanks for BEing a voice in the world that inSpires and supports others to do the same.

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