Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW
I enjoy reading your column and value your insights. We are making a decision regarding whether to allow our 18-year-old son to be a counselor in camp this year. This is something he very much wants to do and there are aspects I think he will be good at it. However, he struggles a lot with responsibility throughout the year. He is notoriously unreliable, has trouble waking up in the morning, and you can't count on him for anything. We are concerned that we are setting him up for failure by allowing him to take a job in camp. Not to mention the implications of his irresponsibility on the campers and staff. On the other hand, maybe, it will be good for his self-confidence, he is not a great student and might do better in camp where his personality is more of a factor than his academics. I would appreciate any insight you can provide. Thanks.
Of course I can speak only generally since I don’t know the history, ways in which your son has reacted in the past, the interaction between you and him (both prior and in the aftermath), and various other factors.
Very often, when we try and protect others, we wind up causing more harm than good. I certainly understand your concerns. You want to make sure that your son doesn’t fail, thus getting the message that he is a failure and incapable of responsibility. However, think of the message that he receives when his parents try and protect him from failure. The message is likely to be that he is such an abject failure that he cannot be allowed to make the attempt. He is not only denied the opportunity to succeed, but he is also given the sense that his parents believe that he will fail.
Naturally, most parents have always been focused on those things that would help their children to achieve success in life. But I think that this was a more macro view in past generations. I believe that today’s parents are far more concerned about their children failing in specific areas and in specific tasks. This can easily lead to helicopter parenting, where parents feel too strong a need to control their children’s lives in order for them to succeed. Unfortunately, this can easily backfire, robbing children of their self-determination, self-assurance, and ultimately their self-esteem.
Naturally, it is always good to emphasize people’s positive qualities and their strengths (both generally and in specific areas). It could certainly help to show your son that you have confidence in the areas in which he excels. This, however, can become a double-edged sword; he might view too much emphasis as an indication that he is useless in other areas and with regard to other abilities. This would be a specific concern when he has previously gotten the sense that he is incompetent. It is therefore important to give him the sense that you generally have confidence in his ability to succeed.
Children and adolescents (as well as adults) need to develop consequential thinking, allowing them to learn from their mistakes through natural reward and consequences. When we consistently shield our children from mistakes and failures, we are ultimately working against them. They not only have a limited ability to make proper decisions, but they can also believe that they wouldn’t be able to do so if the opportunity arose.
I understand your concern about the risk of your son’s specific failures. However, you need to ask yourself—both on an individual basis and in general—if, ultimately, you are doing him more harm than good.
With regard to summer camp, for instance, what would constitute “failure?” What negative consequence might this cause for your son? What positive consequence might it cause (like learning to be self-sufficient despite “failure,” or simply that there are consequences for his actions)? In the long run, will your interference be good or bad for him.
This is part of what makes parenting so difficult: trying to figure out when to hold on and when to let go. This is something with which I think most parents struggle. The question is whether we want to struggle with it all our lives, or if we want our children to reach the level where they can take the initiative, giving them the opportunity to experience this struggle—and make the right choices—with their own children.
-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW
psychotherapist in private practice
adjunct professor at Touro College
Graduate School of Social Work
author of Self-Esteem: A Primer
www.ylcsw.com / 516-218-4200
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