Tips for Parents

Encourage your student … to fail

Even non-human parents display an uncanny bond to their children. Mexican free-tailed bats live in colonies of millions, clustered together at up to 500 bats per square foot, yet the mothers find and nurse their own young among the millions, recognizing their cry and smell.

Human parents exhibit a similarly amazing connection, loving and cherishing our children with the belief that they’re special, one-of-a-kind treasures who are capable of realizing all of their dreams.

The problem is when our children agree.

A controversial study reported on by the Los Angeles Times suggests that Generation Y-ers are so overly self-confident that they’re narcissistic. This attitude – widely recognized in teenagers to 20-somethings – breeds discontentment and a constant need for praise and “patting on the head,” in the workplace, according to a Reuters article.

For your students, theirs is a generation whose identity is generally established by the positive attention they receive for any small achievement. Beginning back in preschool with gold stars for accomplishments and now constant self-promotion on Facebook and Twitter, incoming college freshmen may have a rude awakening when professors expect them to succeed for knowledge’s sake, not to be recognized.

For parents, this presents a conundrum: How do we encourage our students to succeed while helping them see a bigger picture, outside of themselves?

The answer: Beyond encouraging our students to succeed, we must encourage them to fail.

This doesn’t mean lowering standards and condoning mediocrity. Rather, it expands our definition of success past the individual, including society and affecting the community. Make failure acceptable in the following areas, which may result in a positive shift in your student’s priorities and viewpoint:

Grades. Instead of asking about your student’s midterm grades, find out about what he/she is learning. Of course grades matter when applying for jobs, grad school or scholarships, but they shouldn’t be everything. Take the focus off of the temporary achievement and discuss how knowing the class material will benefit your student long after college. Instead of just working for the grade or obtaining a pre-requisite, your student will value the education and incorporate it into his/her worldview.

Redefining success. If you recognize that your student has a need to excel in order to feel appreciated, valued or happy, talk to him/her about what “excelling” should mean. Is it having a 4.0 grade-point average or learning challenging material? Is it securing a job with a hefty salary straight out of college or finding a life calling that connects him/her to other passionate people?

Risks. Don’t let fear direct your student’s path. If it means avoiding failure, your student might be tempted to take familiar classes, choose a “safe” major that promises job security yet doesn’t excite him/her, or pass up internships or studying abroad because it keeps him/her in the comfort zone. Life experience is valuable. Even if it means a struggling grade, a steep learning curve or emotional unrest, these things can make your student a stronger, well-rounded adult. And that is a success.

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