Is Failure the Key to Happiness?

I read a number of terrific articles over the past year, but two of them stood out. One, called “How to Land Your Kid in Therapy,” caused a significant stir when it was published. Its message that parents who overprotect their children are actually doing them a disservice provoked an outcry in some corners, and a cry of relief from others. The second article, “Can a Playground Be Too Safe?” was somewhat less prominent but no less affecting, focusing on just one area where many of the same battles are playing out: the neighborhood playground.

Both articles discuss a fascinating subject: the unique benefits of hardship. By hardship, of course, I don’t mean abuse or negligence. I mean the experiences that generations of children once simply accepted as a matter of course: losing at sports, receiving lower grades than desired, experiencing the disorienting anguish of minor injuries, and navigating a world of disputes without constant adult intervention.

There’s no question about it: these things are hard, especially in childhood. But an increasing body of evidence suggests that they may also be essential to developing into the kind of adults who can metabolize disappointment and rejection without falling to pieces.

The watchword here is inoculation, as in the same process that steels your immune system to better handle pathogens once they have been encountered. Childhoods spent free of difficulties seem to produce children who are unable to manage and channel these feelings in a healthy way. Here’s the Atlantic article:

Observing this phenomenon, my colleagues and I began to wonder: Could it be that by protecting our kids from unhappiness as children, we’re depriving them of happiness as adults? Paul Bohn, a psychiatrist at UCLA who came to speak at my clinic, says the answer may be yes. Based on what he sees in his practice, Bohn believes many parents will do anything to avoid having their kids experience even mild discomfort, anxiety, or disappointment—“anything less than pleasant,” as he puts it—with the result that when, as adults, they experience the normal frustrations of life, they think something must be terribly wrong.

The second article describes how a similar phenomenon is affecting our play areas. We’ve all watched asphalt give way to foam rubber and towering metal slides to shorter plastic substitutes. Many parents instinctively see this as a good thing: safer is always better, right? There is no question that fewer kids get scalded by metal slides today, or that fewer injuries result from long falls. But what’s being lost may be even more valuable: many of the newest playgrounds do not allow the kind of boundary-testing behaviors that children have long attempted, behaviors which experts believe can help them conquer fears, develop inner strength, and learn to trust themselves in daunting environments. Here’s the New York Times:

Sometimes, of course, their mastery fails, and falls are the common form of playground injury. But these rarely cause permanent damage, either physically or emotionally. While some psychologists — and many parents — have worried that a child who suffered a bad fall would develop a fear of heights, studies have shown the opposite pattern: A child who’s hurt in a fall before the age of 9 is less likely as a teenager to have a fear of heights.

By gradually exposing themselves to more and more dangers on the playground, children are using the same habituation techniques developed by therapists to help adults conquer phobias, according to Dr. Sandseter and a fellow psychologist, Leif Kennair, of the Norwegian University for Science and Technology.

Here it is again: inoculation. Read between the lines of both articles and the conclusion is clear: kids need to experience obstacles if they are to develop essential life skills. They also need a foundation of love and support to let them know that they can try and fail. Somewhere in the balance between these forces lies a promising avenue toward self-reliance. These articles provide a powerful rebuke to this era of helicopter parenting, and a good reason to burst the protective bubble that so many of us labor to create around our children.

My own Culver City preschool facility exceeds all appropriate safety standards, and of course we take pains to ensure none of our students ever face true danger or harm. But a skinned knee? Yes, we are there within moments bearing ice and a hug, but we also endeavor to provide these kids with something even more valuable than a Band-Aid: the tools to manage stinging pain on their own terms, no matter what comes.

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