Ziauddin Yousafzai, father of Malala, the teenager who survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban in 2012 for speaking out in favour of girls’ education, is often asked what he did for his daughter that has given her such courage, strength and poise. He replies, “It’s not what I did, it’s what I didn’t do — I didn’t clip her wings.” (TED, March 2014).
As we anxiously ponder how to ensure our children grow up with a sense of grit – courage, resolve and a strong sense of character – we would do well to heed the wise words of Ziauddin Yousafzai. The woes and worries of parenting a child in a small, developed country, with one of the most reputable education standards globally, where schooling is an absolute right for both sexes, are undoubtedly very different from those of an extraordinarily liberal minded father and educator, striving to make a difference in a strictly patriarchal and often dangerous society. But, if we consider the way developed societies parent today, and in particular our own parenting style, we might realise that it’s what we don’t do, that ultimately makes all the difference.
If you’ve ever travelled overseas to any developing nation, in Asia or Africa for example, at some point you may have noticed the self-sufficiency of local children. Toddlers run around freely, getting into mischief with older children as they explore, discover, get dirty, fall down and pick themselves up without a murmur, no adult in sight! In particularly poor countries, children as young as six or seven years old often care for younger siblings, and for many children, helping parents to earn a living engulfs most of their childhood.
I don’t for one moment advocate that we send our children out to work to toughen them up, of course not! And leaving children alone for too long without adult supervision throws up all manner of concerns and issues within any society. But, I do wonder if we have gone too far in how much we try to protect our children and do for them, or have others do for them. Does this result in disempowering their innate resolve to achieve, create, learn and ultimately cope? As we protect our children are we sometimes in fact robbing them of the opportunity to develop the resilience and resolve they may one day need?
So often we rush to tie our five year old’s shoelaces because we’re in a hurry to leave the house. We rush to pick up our toddler who falls over in the park for fear they graze a knee or get dirty! This parenting style, which involves hovering around in order to remove any obstacles or challenges, is now identified as ‘Helicopter Parenting’.
The long-term effects of this coddling of our children are now being looked at with great concern. There is a risk we are creating a generation of children who collapse at the first hurdle, often in their university years or first job. If we spend too much effort in protecting our children and ensuring every experience is a happy, joyous one how can we possibly teach them the valuable lessons of picking yourself up from a failure, a disappointment and injustice? These things happen in life and if we allow them to happen when our children have our support and guidance to fall back on we let them realise it is not the end of the world.
As parents we are responsible for the development of children’s self-confidence, courage and resolve, in short, their belief in their own abilities. To be honest these skills will carry them much further in life than a high grade in a test or the ability to play the piano.
When asked what we want for our children the vast majority of us wish for them to be happy! The question is what is the best way to go about that?
The fact is, no matter how much we want our children to be happy, that’s not actually our job! We can’t make our children happy but we can ensure they have as many positive experiences as possible that allow them to decide for themselves what makes them feel happy.
We can provide them with opportunities that build confidence in their own abilities because they enjoy the process of what they are doing. Through praise and constant encouragement we can inculcate a desire to succeed because they choose to, not because they fear the consequences if they don’t.
We can show them that failure is positive and necessary to making us stronger or more knowledgeable and more determined next time. And perhaps more importantly, we can guide them to becoming decent, caring and compassionate young people by opening their awareness to the lives of others.
At the end of the day, while being loving, guiding and caring parents, we must allow our children to be themselves, to make mistakes and to develop as the unique individuals they are. It takes courage. Perhaps it’s parents, more than children, who need to develop a sense of grit!
Fiona Walker is the Principal of Schools / CEO of Julia Gabriel Education. She holds a Masters in Early Childhood Education and is a qualified Montessori teacher with more than 20 years of experience in providing quality education for young children.