Let Them Fail. 4 Lessons From Baking With My Son.

I have strived my entire adult life to try to not be a helicopter mom. I have never been on the PTA or chaperoned a dance. What I have done is to show up for every soccer game and have often driven 2 1/2 hours to see my son wrestle for all of 6 minutes. I’ve never done my kid’s homework or projects but I have gone to Target at 9 PM to buy Elmer’s glue or poster board for a school project due the next day. I always tried to be present but not takeover. The thought being “I’m here for you but I’m not doing the heavy lifting for you.”

I have never had a set of “water wings” on either of my kids when they were toddlers. I believed that having a pair of inflatable life preservers on each arm would give them a false sense of security. So, they learned early that they would sink if they couldn’t swim. Both could hold their breath underwater before the age of two. They have done their own laundry, dishes and cooked family meals before they were out of elementary school. So, I guess I’m not the doting Mom but they knew they could count on me to show up for a Marching Band competition.

So, I’m trying to understand what happened this weekend when my son was baking a cake called Baba au Rhum. It’s a pretty intricate cake that involves separating eggs, whipping and folding…careful and precise execution. He asked for advice when he was about a third of the way through. The “batter” looked more like gravel. The culinary master in me took over and suddenly, I was taking over the production. My son stopped, looked at me intently and said….”Stop. Let me fail”. Wow. I was thunderstruck . Profound words from an 18 year old. Step away from the mixing bowl and go back to the couch Mommy.Let them fail.

As much as this seems completely counter intuitive to parenting, here is the value of letting your kids fail:

1. Tea. They find out if it’s not their cup of tea. Here is just a short list of activities that my children have engaged in and will not be seeking to turn “pro” in anytime soon: soccer, football, volleyball, basketball, Alto Saxophone, Tenor Saxophone, waterpolo, lacrosse, ballet, tether ball, four square, Oboe, jazz band, marching band, musicals, symphony, samba, salsa, wrestling, long jump, triple jump, shot put, waterskiing, tubing, and Guitar Hero. Some of these activities were very enjoyable, some painful, but at least they got to try them on for size. Let your kids figure out what kind of tea they like.

2. Fast. In “The Confidence Code” by Claire Shipman and Katty Kay, they suggest failing fast and often. What? Part of this is due to women, in particular, wanting to be perfectionists. So you end up investing WAY too much time in something and constantly trying to make it perfect. If you fail fast, you can let go of the perfectionism and learn how to cope instead of ruminating about it. They end up facing and conquering the fear of even starting. As a parent (or boss, or spouse), I need to let go of the perfectionism as well. If your son decides he’s not a basketball player cause he’s played it since 4th grade and he’s done with it; Let it go. On to the next experiment (which in his case was wrestling and he ended up going all the way to the state championship his Senior year of high school). Let your kids (or direct reports) fail fast.

3. Outcome. As a parent, I need to let go of the outcome. It’s like the Baba au Rhum my son was baking. If it’s not perfect…so what? Is it going to kill him? No. Will it ruin his chances of ever winning the Bocuse d’Or? Possibly. Maybe we end up wasting $10 in flour, eggs and butter. I have always learned more from dishes I have failed at as opposed to those which were a big success. An undercooked loaf of bread is nasty and rare tri tip cut on the wrong angle (not against the grain) is impossible to chew. Just because you might be underwriting the baking adventure doesn’t mean you can’t let him fail. As it turns out the cake received rave reviews from all who sampled. Let go of the outcome.

4. Wings. Letting your kids fail gives them wings. I remember when my daughter gave up swimming as a sport. I wanted so badly for her to swim because it had been MY sport in high school. If I had insisted that she continue to swim she may not have taken up the clarinet and she would have resented my meddling. More importantly, her heart would not have been in it. If she had never taken up the clarinet she never would have explored all the roads associated with music including stunning duets, theater and her love of film. Letting her make the decision is what’s important. As Shakespeare said “To Thine Own Self Be True”. How is she going to find her wings if I’m telling her what to wear and what to do? Let them fly.

My children are not perfect and there have been more than an occasional misstep along the way into adulthood. A dead car battery, a call from the principal’s office and more than one $5 atm charge to get twenty dollars cash. As long as they learn something from every bump or failure and, most importantly, I don’t clean up the mess for them, I think they (and any baked goods) will turn out just fine. Failure is the starting point for resilience…so let them fail.

Bon Appetit!

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