Paving the Way to Take Risks

Most of us have been in a kitschy little gift shop that had some clever little sign or button or tchotchske that said “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” If you’re like me, it made you stop and think, at least for a minute. What a question. What would I do it if I KNEW I could not fail. Wow. Kinda heady, isn’t it.

What does that mean “if I could not fail?” Really? Being guaranteed to succeed? What is that?

I’ll tell you what it is. It’s safety. It’s confidence, sure. But it’s really safety. A certainty that as I am headed into this thing that feels risky, I will not only be okay, I will not feel disappointment, either from myself or others. Can you imagine?

So what does this have to do with children? And parenting?

I’ll tell you that too. (I’m nice like that.)

Our children take risks — big risks — every day. From getting to their feet to walk to stepping into a preschool classroom for the first time to saying thank you to the cashier in the grocery store when they smile at them and give them a sticker to learning to write letters, to ordering in a restaurant to applying to college.

And here’s the kicker: WE are their safety. WE are their “soft place to land.” WE are the place where no matter what they do, they can never be a disappointment.

Everyone should have such a place. As parents embracing a culture of respect and trust, we have the immense honor and privilege of being that place for our children. We get to give our children a childhood in which they actually get to live out that feeling that most of us have only dreamed of: to try to do things without fear of failing. And who would they be afraid of failing? Us. They’re afraid of failing us. Fortunately, there is something we can do about that.

We can accept our children exactly as they are right now. Fully. Completely. Without qualifications or expectations of change.

Because you know what?

Permission to be who you are clears the way to try something different.

Yup. It’s true.

In trying to change our children, we are making it harder, and sometimes impossible, for them to take the steps that they need to take to try something new and different, to take risks.

Let me illustrate.

Your child is “shy.” (or that’s what you’re calling it, I might call it something different, if I called it anything at all.) Cashiers in the grocery store give them something and they hide behind your leg. You invite them to say “thank you” and they scowl. You ask them if there is anything they want to say, and they shake their heads vigorously. Grandparents come to visit and they won’t come out of their rooms. Grandma asks them what’s their favorite part of school and they sit there, unresponsive, as if they weren’t asked a question.

Maybe you say something in the moment. Maybe something reassuring. Maybe something demanding. Maybe something inviting. You want them to respond differently, to please others, to move with grace and confidence in the larger world. You fear that they will never be able to manage socially, that others perceive them as rude, that adults are judging you for your parenting, as if you are not teaching your children to be polite.

You want them to change, to do better.

They may want to change, to do better.

So here’s the question:

What if they are quietly and privately trying? What if they are trying really hard to figure out how to push themselves to take that risk and do something that feels scary or overwhelming or unsafe to them? What if they’re strategizing, working out coping strategies, silently taking a deep breath, working up to it? What if, one of these times, when they are at the store with you or the grandparents are over, they’re about to take that risk–because to them it is a risk, a feeling of doing something scary to them (whether you think that’s valid or not)?

That moment may be happening. That moment WILL happen, by their own initiative, on their own timeline and at their own speed, when they are ready and feeling strong and brave. In that moment, what you most need to know is that it may take them many tries to conquer that challenge. And what they most need to know is that if they try this time, and then they can’t quite do it or they start and then can’t finish, that we will not be disappointed. They need to know that they cannot fail, because even if they “fail” by their own standards, we don’t feel any differently about them.

Why would a child take that big risk–to try not to be shy, to respond–if they had fear that they might disappoint us? They don’t want to fail. It’s bad enough that they fail themselves, but they are devastated by failing us, by our disappointment. And that leads them to not try again.

You want your child to be less shy. They’re trying. They’re working on it. They already know you’re disappointed in them and that you want them to be different. They can feel how much more disappointed in them you will be if they try and fail

I know, you will say “But I won’t be disappointed in them, I will be proud that they tried!”

The thing is, my friends, that most times, you won’t know that they tried.

And they already know that you’re disappointed, because you have communicated that already, probably many times, by asking them to be different. You’re not going to convince them otherwise.

You have to trust that they’re doing their best, that they’re trying to do well.

If this is you, here is my message to you. You have to communicate–now, today, every day–that there is absolutely nothing wrong with them the way they are. That you don’t need or want them to be different. That they’re not disappointing you (which is what children take from us trying to get them to do something differently.) That you know they’re doing the best they can. That you don’t expect them to change.

You communicate these things nonverbally far more than you communicate them with words. I’m not suggesting showering your child with “Honey, I love you just the way you are” or “You could never disappoint me, sweetie!” They don’t buy it. You want them to be different, to do better, and they feel it. The only way to effectively communicate those things is to transform your lens and your attitude toward your child so that they feel radical acceptance oozing out of your pores, without you saying a single word. They don’t need your reassurance or your sympathy or your “support” in a situation where they are having a hard time. They just need to feel–ALL of the time, not just in that moment–that there is nothing they could do that would disappoint you.

That feeling is their cushion. It’s their safe place to land. It’s what makes it safe to take risks, when they are ready. It’s what lets them know that they can take their time and try when they’re ready, and no one will make a big deal (positively OR negatively!) and draw attention to them, and that if they “fail,” they are no different in your eyes than they were before they took the risk.

Safety is what lets us take risks. Of course, this isn’t just about being shy. It’s about everything. Trying out for a sports team. Auditioning for a play. Trying a new gymnastics move. Saying hello to the neighbor. Telling the person at the ice cream counter what sort of ice cream they want by themselves. Learning to swim. Singing. Cooking a meal for the family. Asking a child at the playground if they want to play. Trying to read a book that’s a little bit too hard.

If they don’t do it, it’s okay. If they do do it, it’s okay. You don’t feel differently about them either way.

You want them to change. I know. They are changing. Every day. They’re growing and getting more skills and more courage and more strategies.

They don’t need your push. They need your unconditional acceptance.

Be their soft landing place.

Let’s raise children who know what it’s like to try hard things knowing that they cannot fail.

Postscript: I am anticipating the questions and challenges that this post may elicit.

“So, does that mean that if my child isn’t ready to go into preschool, I just shouldn’t make them go, just like I shouldn’t make them say thank you to the cashier?” “This just seems like a way to tell kids that they never need to push themselves to do things that make them uncomfortable. That won’t get them anywhere in this world. What about ‘grit’? What ever happened to hard work?” “So I just shouldn’t have any expectations for my child at all, just let them do whatever they want whenever they want and ‘trust’ that they’ll make good decisions and change on their own?” “So I’m just not supposed to teach my children anything about social conventions and courtesy?”

I’m guessing you might not like my answer. My answer is that these are questions that are borne of fear, and parenting from fear is never a good idea. It’s also the antithesis of trust, and trust is crucial to relationship.

But to answer your questions:

No, it doesn’t mean that if your child isn’t ready to go into preschool, you just shouldn’t make them go. Presumably, there are reasons that your child has been enrolled in preschool–for their social development, for you to work, for you to get a break, for them to have more challenge, to give them opportunities they may not have otherwise. It’s about accepting that they are doing the best they can, that they are resilient and competent. It’s about confidently trusting that they can and will make this adjustment in their own way and time without you figuring it out for them or making them adjust in the way and time that is easiest or seems right to you (or god forbid, “like the other kids do.”

No, it’s not a way to tell kids that they never need to push themselves. It’s consciously creating the conditions under which they are most free and likely to push themselves. It’s trusting that they are internally motivated people who want to do well, people who will strive to be their best knowing that their parents believe in them.
“Grit” is about persistence and taking risks. People take the most risks when they feel safe.

No, we all have expectations for our children. It’s a reminder that our expectations should be grounded in what we know about ages and stages of development and in our knowledge and trust of who our children are as individuals. As they say, “if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.” But yes, trust is a very good idea and an invaluable value to model and pass along to our children.

Children are learning about social norms and conventions and courtesy and rules and culture all day, every day. They are sponges, watching and learning about the world around them at all times. No, we don’t have to “teach” (as most of us define the word “teach”) them those things in most cases. Yes, there are some children for whom more direct instruction might be needed, (see the paragraph above this one about knowing children as individuals. For the overwheming majority of children, we can turn to the wise words of Albert Schweitzer, “There are only three ways to teach a child: The first is by example, the second is by example, and the third is by example.”

Trust. It works.

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