How to Set Your Child Up to Fail

by Shannon Hembree on July 10, 2012

The question of whether or not our kids should be taught that they are special has come up a lot recently. Should we tell our kids they are special? Should we tell them they aren’t special and have to earn that title? To muddy the waters even further, this whole discussion of whether or not our children are ‘special’ has been taking place within the ongoing hoopla of whether or not helicopter parenting is turning the next generation of children into a needy and helpless band of wastrels who wouldn’t make it out of the first round of the Hunger Games.

So where is it that we as parents are really failing? Using the term ‘special’? Helicopter parenting? Or maybe it’s neither of the two. Maybe it’s not that we are too engaged or not engaged enough, maybe it is that in our engagement or lack thereof we have forgotten to teach them humility and how to be a valuable member of a team.

Case in point, I overheard someone giving advice to a teen on internships the other day. Their advice was that with internships you aren’t signing up to be a peon, you are signing up to get real-world experience and you shouldn’t do the crap projects simply because you are an intern. Um, not to point out the obvious, but starting out as a peon is real-world experience whether you are paid or not.

I’m not sure if the person giving advice was this kid’s parent or a family friend or what, but in that moment, they set that kid up to fail – in many ways – for years to come. I have been an intern, and when someone needed something filed, I jumped at the chance. When someone needed something messengered, I jumped at the chance. No, I’m not saying trade your morals and do sketchy things, but I am saying that you need to be humble and put in your dues. I have seen interns who come into a workplace with the attitude that they should be making policy not answering phones. These are the kids that you are glad to see go at the end of the term. These are the kids who ask for recommendations later for graduate school or a job, and you write the blandest recommendation possible. There are no “enthusiastically recommend” or “must-hire” mentions or anything like that in these recommendations. There is the subtle message that if you hire this kid you will regret it.

On the flip side are the kids who are eager to help – whether it is answering phones or cleaning out filing cabinets. These are the kids you go the extra mile for. These are the kids who pop into your head when someone you know is hiring. These are the kids you want to help. The kids with the attitude? Not so much.

And I don’t know about where your career started, but my first “real” job was an assistant job. I could have gone into these jobs with the attitude that I am special and was above doing lower-level work, but that wouldn’t have gotten me far. It wouldn’t have endeared me to my employers. Even as I moved up the career ladder, I kept the attitude that if a job needed to be done, I was happy (or at least willing) to do it. I can’t tell you how many times I stayed late at the office to fax documents (am I showing my age?) or raced across the city after dark in a mad-dash attempt to make it to the FedEx office that stayed open the latest.

If teaching our children that they are special means teaching them that they are above such work, then yes, teaching them that they are special is a bad thing. If your “helicopter” engagement means that when you are engaged you are teaching them that they are above such work, then yes, it is a bad thing. And maybe it’s not about teaching our kids that they are special at all, but unique. Because they are that.

But are they humble? Do they know how to be a good team player – and by that I mean are they willing and able to bring out a pot of coffee to clients with a smile on their face if the catering company dropped the ball? Are they going to refuse to make copies for an important meeting if there is no one else on hand to do it? Because if they aren’t willing to do what it takes to get it done when they are on the lower rungs of their career, odds are that they will never make it to the top rungs.

So what are you teaching your child? Are you teaching them that they are too good to do the grunt work? Because if you are, you are setting them up to be hated by co-workers and bosses alike. You are setting them up to fulfill the stereotype that kids these days are lazy, lousy employees who think they are too good to roll up their sleeves and get the job done. You are setting them up for failure. And if that’s not a terrifying enough thought as a parent, how about this – the door they will come knocking on when they can’t get or keep a job may well be yours.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Laura H. July 10, 2012 at 7:35 am

Brilliant. Thanks so much for saying this! I wholeheartedly agree; kids today are slathered with so much praise for mediocrity (participation trophies really get my goat–you get a trophy for just showing up and doing what you are supposed to do?) that they now think mediocrity is ok. Back in the dark ages when I was growing up, a C got you in big fat trouble, not a cute sticker with “good work!” stuck on the top. Great blog!!


Shannon July 10, 2012 at 7:49 am

Thanks — our rule is that you try your best no matter how hard the task or what it is. And you aren’t above helping with anything.


Solon July 10, 2012 at 7:56 am

If anyone ever hopes to be in a position of authority they should know every job in the country from the basement up, and not be afraid to do any of them. You gain valuable experience and the respect of everyone who works above you or below you.


Shannon July 10, 2012 at 8:06 am

Wow — I love this comment — so, so true!


Margaret Mary July 10, 2012 at 7:58 am

Well said! I am guilty of the over praise because I have kids who have a hard time getting started and trying new things but one thing I have stopped doing is praising their intelligence. Now I praise hard work. They it good report cards because they worked hard. This is a real shift for me since all I heard growing up was how smart I was and it literally got me no where. My kids are smart, but being smart only makes a few things a little easier. Success only comes to those who work for it. Btw there is a great book about this and other similar parenting “myths” called Nurture Shock. I highly recommend it:)


Shannon July 10, 2012 at 8:09 am

Thanks for the book recommendation — I’ll have to check it out. I read an article at one point that said exactly what you are saying — praise your kids for hard work, not for being smart. It had something to do with their intelligence being something they had no control over, but hard work being something they could improve. Clearly, I’m not saying that as wonderfully as they did, but hopefully it at least makes sense! Thanks for reading!


Farrah July 10, 2012 at 7:59 am

I think about this with the boys. I really hope we teach them that hard work- earning your position and high ethics are important. They were to my husband and I. I would never tell them to compromise their morals either, but you have to earn things in this life- the entitlement factor is really quite sickening these days. When I was teaching it really opened my eyes to what kinds of people we’re pushing out into society.


Shannon July 10, 2012 at 8:14 am

I always get slightly terrified when I hear teachers commenting on the kinds of kids we are putting out into society 😉

And I agree on the entitlement — it seems that the hard-working, humble kids are rare…although that might just be my inner grandma talking…because I also used to walk uphill both ways…


Beckie July 10, 2012 at 3:10 pm

While I whole heartedly agree, I’m not sure my generation or any generation previous to mine was without entitled people. They may have been more the exception than the rule, but I know I have a co-worker who is the same age as me whose middle names seem to be “lazy” and “entitled”. And boy, is she a blast to work with! (Sarcasm intended.) But in any case, I vow to teach my kid to pick up after himself, help where and when he can and to not be the spoiled only child – hopefully the pendulum will swing back to the “good ol’ days” with out kids 🙂


Shannon July 10, 2012 at 4:43 pm

I agree — the younger generation certainly doesn’t have the corner on laziness — but there is a lot of talk among those of our generation as if they do. Who knows – maybe we have reached the age where all we can do is talk about those young whipper-snappers like that 😉

It was just strange hearing someone give a kid advice like that and made me think of the whole discussion about “are kids special.”


Sarah K July 10, 2012 at 7:11 pm

I love this one. I never thought about the difference between praising a child for “being smart” or “trying hard” — I’m SO glad that I read this. I realized that I praise the girls all the time for how smart they are. I’m totally going to follow this advice and focus on praising the effort instead. You are so smart! 😉


Shannon July 10, 2012 at 8:29 pm

Oh ha ha. And – I definitely recommend you Google the article or read the book recommended by MM above before heading off in a new direction. I’m trying to think of something else smart to say, but I am coming up short. Clearly, I need to try harder 😉

Have a good night!


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