Difficult Conversations: Give kids the freedom to fly, fail, get up and try again!

As parents, it is our job to tell them that failure doesn't matter, hard work does, dedication does. As long as the child is working hard and doesn't lose sight of the goal, minor hurdles mean nothing.

By Tanu Shree Singh

We have this area in our mountain home that we call the Gazebo. Being open on all sides it is often home to birds who build nests precariously balanced on beams. On my last trip, as we settled in for breakfast, the fledglings in one such nest decided to taste freedom and took off. All hell broke loose. Four fledglings, four directions, two distressed parents. Two of them decided to park themselves on the beam, one hid in a bowl but the fourth one decided to explore the outdoors. It flew out, bursting with confidence, his parents chirping at a pitch that could possibly shatter glass. The little bird soon lost confidence as the fear of the outside world took over and hid in a bush. The parents hopped and flew around it for a while. You could hear the panic. And then one of them decided to wait with the fledgling in the bush. The parent perched on a branch at a distance, with its eyes fixed on the baby. You could see the baby panting. You could also almost see creases of worry on the parent’s forehead. And there it was, my life in a nutshell.

Often, parenting articles and books stop at teenage. Some talk about the dark phase that it becomes. Others tell you to wait it out. But rarely does anyone discuss about being a parent to a fledgling who just took flight. Do we cease to be parents after that? Do the fears go away? Does the freshly minted adult suddenly gain wisdom by kilos? Alas, if only it were true.

The older one has just entered college. The day we dropped him off, we were overrun with a whole range of emotions from anxiety to sheer joy. I could see the boy trying to be brave and cool about being a freshman but somewhere in there was a child trying to make sense of the world. Like me there are so many more parents trying to grapple with the change, trying to take a backseat yet jumping up with anxiety every time the phone rings. Some things I told my son and myself that I hope would stick and also help others in the same boat as me were:

I understand

Often, we the adults try to brush aside the problems that our younglings share with the line, “This is nothing. Life is fairly easy for you right now. You have no idea how things get tough when real life begins.” This is perhaps the silliest, lamest thing we can say. Life has begun. It began the day the youngling popped out and was whacked on the bum by the paediatrician to get him going. So to say that college life is a fairytale which gets real only once you are outside, is delusional. For the child (yes, he will be a child even when he is 40 and has a head full of grey hair), it is real. The anxieties are real. So rather than saying, “oh you have it easy, in our times….,” start with a simple, “I understand”. And then listen. Put yourself in the child’s shoes and then respond. Most importantly, remember his struggles do not get easier with the knowledge that you might have struggled more.

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I am here

The boy was missing home, specifically his room and the huge bed that fits his six feet two inches frame. In the hostel with his feet dangling outside the bed, he called and whispered, “I miss home”. In that moment, I heard my baby. I wanted to pack the home and take it to him in a blink. Instead, I let him speak, grumble and complain. And then I told him, “I am here you know. And I can be there at whatever time of the day or night you need me, even if it is just for a cup of coffee you want to have with me.” He let out a muffled laugh and promised me to tell me if he needed me there. Just to sit with him or listen to him. Just the knowledge that the family is with you and can reach you any time, is comforting.

Give yourself a chance

College is a new chapter. Opportunities and avenues open up. It is like a clean slate. You can try new things and discover yourself all over again. So during a late night call, we talked about how there were a gazillion clubs and societies in the college and how he thought he couldn’t try them out because who would select a newbie. And then we talked about rejection and the insignificance of it. This is the time to take flight, to try new things, fail at them and try again. The boy now is contemplating enrolling for some at least. It is not just academics that define college life but also the enriching experiences that one can gain outside classroom. And sometimes, these experiences define future interests and plans. All of us need to give ourselves a chance, especially the child who just entered into the transitional stage between childhood and adulthood. All it takes is a tiny unsure step.

Give the world a chance

A friend had recently messaged about her anxiety for her son who didn’t really have many friends entering college. She and I share the same fears. The boy has always been skeptical of people. So we constantly talk about friendships and how they change. Unless the world is given a chance, how would he know that out there is a bunch of people just like him slinking away in corners, hoping to go unnoticed and yet craving for some connections with others? A simple smile, a handshake, a tiny step out of the comfort zone could mean the beginning of new friendships. Again, we talked about what is the worst that could happen – possibly a reaffirmation of his scepticism for people in general? With that knowledge also came the realisation that what if the worse did not happen? What if out there was his tribe, waiting for him to join in? He would know only if he gave the world a chance.

Failure is not the enemy

The big F word that never tires! It chases us. It looms in corners and scares us. And naturally, the boy too was fearful of failure. The change is overwhelming. Suddenly, the teachers teach differently, the work given is drastically different from what they did till school, and they are supposed to analyse rather than rote learn. With the change, and a sense of being lost come the fear. “What if I fail?” Rather than saying, “Why would you fail?” we talked about “What next?” Failure is not the end of the word. At best, it is a roadblock urging us to take a detour, pedal faster and harder to get back on track. This needs to be spelt out. Children often step in to college with a burden of perceived expectations. The aunts and uncles who congratulate also add, “Now you have to work hard and make your parents proud.” That pressure does nothing to improve performance. Also the said parents have always been proud of the kids. As parents, it is our job to tell them that failure doesn’t matter, hard work does, dedication does. As long as the child is working hard and doesn’t lose sight of the goal, minor hurdles mean nothing.

Our fledglings are flying out. And all they need from us to be that parent in the bushes who patiently waits for the fledgling to try one more time, all the time keeping an eye out for predators but never smothering the child with protective love. All they need is space, freedom to fly, fail, get up and try again.

(The writer has a PhD in Positive Psychology and is a lecturer in psychology. She is also the author of the book Keep Calm and Mommy On. Listen to Season 1 and 2 of Tanu Shree Singh’s podcast Difficult Conversations With Your Kids.)

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