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Life is full of paradoxes. For parents this is especially the case: We love our toddlers above all else, but they drive us to distraction once they learn to say no. We think of our teens as adorable, but they can be completely self-absorbed, cruel to their peers, and disdainful of us, their parents—in other words, not pleasant to be around.

So here’s the question: how do we affirm our kids’ sense of self so they will develop a healthy self-esteem while at the same time teaching them the coping skills and resilience they’ll need when life treats them unfairly or they mess up? They will sometimes be passed over for someone else. Their talents will sometimes be underappreciated. Their passion for becoming, say, a doctor, will not always match their academic or personal abilities to achieve that goal. And sometimes our kids will make bad mistakes with unpleasant or even dire consequences.

All these factors are capable of knocking a carefully nurtured self-esteem right out of the ballpark, at least for a time, much to our—and our children’s—consternation and fear.

Ages 2 to 12
Children learn about themselves mostly from their parents and other caregivers, but they also take their cues from the culture they grow up in and the communities they are part of. The most common temptation to which parents fall prey is to teach their children, from about ages 2 to 12, that they are special—more special than anyone else. In fact, parents who put their kids on a pedestal and give them the message that that they are smarter, better-looking, more gifted, and more important than anyone else do their kids no favor. When parents sacrifice everything for their children, their kids learn that the world revolves around them and that it should conform to their needs. They experience themselves as “kings/queens of the castle.”

Western culture often conspires to reinforce that notion. Pop culture for young girls, for instance, encourages them to identify with “princess” status by providing outfits, books, and movies in abundance that reinforce that identity. Boys are taught to identify with all-powerful superheroes who always win.

Parents and teachers do well to be conscious of the cultural stereotypes kids identify with and to balance their influence with values and experiences that help kids learn the necessity of fitting in, of working to achieve while accepting that they can’t always have what they want. From a young age, kids need to learn to accept failure and risk-taking in the face of uncertainty. They need to learn not to give up too soon after having failed at something. And they need to learn to be gracious and courageous in the face of defeat. Parents can look for activities that teach their kids these values. For instance, children as young as 3 can be taught they won’t always win in a competitive game and that losing is OK too—the game itself rather than winning is the challenge.

Teens ages 12 to 18 often present a special challenge for parents. In this stage of their development, teens learn to know themselves as separate from their parents and others. Paradoxically, they develop this separate identity—who they are and what they want to be—as part of the herd, namely, their friends and peer groups. Teen culture often seems to take on a life of its own. Kids appear to feel enormous pressure to belong to this social grouping. They seem to disdain the influence of any adults in their lives—mainly their parents and their teachers—and doubt its relevance. In contrast, they see the opinions and acceptance or rejection of their peers as the only important “mirror” that can tell them who they are, what their place is in the world, and whether their lives matter.

Social media seems to have further broadened peer identification. More often than not parents are frustrated because their teens incessantly argue against the rules they try to impose to keep their kids safe and to teach Christian morals. Parents end up feeling helpless in the face of their teens’ apparent disrespect and self-will and fearful that the path their children are on will lead to alienation at best and destruction at worst.

But there is good news. New research on teen brains is helping parents better understand their teens’ behavior. As part of nurturing their teens to become mature and loving adults, parents are learning what they can do to give their kids experiences of the world beyond those within their kids’ peer groups.

In their book NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children (Twelve, 2009), Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman talk about parent/teen conflict in a new way. The teenaged brain, they say, “can think abstractly, but not feel abstractly.”  Within their social groups, teens learn what it means to fail, to be afraid, to take risks. But they develop no such feelings outside of their social groupings because failure and resilience are not built in as part of their identify formation, in many cases because their parents are affluent enough to shield them from “the world” too well. So, for instance, parents may say to their teen, “What made you do such a stupid thing?” And because he or she has not been taught to fail, to take risks, to achieve in spite of obstacles, the honest answer may be, “You don’t have to worry, everything’s fine.” Risky behavior in the world doesn’t scare many teens because their lives have been too sheltered.
Children who grow up in insular communities, including the mostly white and affluent Christian Reformed Church in North America, are especially at a disadvantage.

Learning to let their children experience the world as it really is and letting them risk harm in that world is a challenge for parents. But it should also help them relax their vigilance on behalf of their children. In the same way that a too-clean, germ-free environment can actually hurt a child’s developing immune system, a too-protected childhood can actually hurt a child’s ability to face and overcome the hardships of life. Like all of us, children learn best by doing. Besides being unconditionally loved no matter who they are and what they will become, our children need to know life can be tough—but they can get through the difficulty and learn to thrive in spite of it.

This helps us understand how God parents all of us. The question “Why do bad things happen to good people?” is answered when we realize that God matures us not only through his unconditional love and amazing grace but also through the hardships we suffer. We are refined through these experiences, and so are our children.

The good news of the gospel is that God promises to be with us “in the midst of trouble” (Ps. 138). In fact, God will use everything that happens in our lives to our benefit if we choose to trust in him.

More often than not, the hard lessons in life drive both us and our children back to a Father who has provided us with this no-fail guarantee in Jesus. What a relief!


Good Job learning to Fail

  1. What lesson did you learn from your parents or your culture regarding your self-worth? How did that affect your adult life?
  2. Is it dangerous to put your kid on a pedestal? Why?
  3. Judy Cook says “kids need to learn to accept failure and risk taking in the face of uncertainty.” Do you agree or disagree? Why?
  4. How does faith formation impact the concepts of achievement and failure? Explain.
  5. How do we affirm our children’s sense of self while teaching them coping skills and resilience?
  6. Give an example of how God has matured and loved you through a particular mistake or hardship.

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