As soon as we have a child, our protective instinct kicks in. In fact, in both mothers and fathers, changes occur at the brain level in areas linked to emotions, such as the hypothalamus and the amygdala. There is also a decrease in gray matter in areas associated with social cognition and self-processing. All these changes prepare the parents’ brains to successfully face upbringing, causing them to put themselves in the background to prioritize the care of their baby.
In a way, these changes in the functioning of the brain also explain the protective instinct that parents feel towards their children. However, it is one thing to protect children from danger and quite another to restrict their freedom, preventing them from making their own mistakes and hindering the possibility that they learn to deal with problems.
When we protect a child from danger, we are creating a safe environment for them to grow and develop, but when we overprotect them, we are fostering dependency. Therefore, letting children make mistakes, no matter how much it hurts, is one of the greatest gifts we can give them in the long term.
The real problem of parents: not knowing how to deal with anxiety
All children need to be protected. No doubt. However, parental overprotection goes one step further because it is not simply about keeping children safe, but also acts as a protection mechanism for the parents themselves.
In a certain way, overprotection implies a projection of the parents’ fears and insecurities onto the child, which ends up limiting their development and autonomy. In fact, some parents overprotect their children simply because they can’t deal with the anxiety that they might hurt themselves.
However, children cannot live forever under the protective wing of their parents, so sooner or later they will have to face the world. And if they do it without being prepared because they have never fallen and got back up on their own, they will have a serious problem. The mission of parents is not to keep their children in the nest forever, but to teach them to fly.
Overprotective parents who prevent their children from making mistakes, so that they do not feel bad, are not really paying attention to their needs or reacting to a situation of real danger but rather to a risk that exists mainly in their mind. Many of these parents ignore their children’s need for autonomy because they do not want to face their fears and anxieties. They don’t take note that as their little ones get older they need more freedom. They put their imperative need for security first. They limit their children to feel more secure themselves.
The problem is that when this kind of anxious mind is nurtured, it’s easy to fall into a loop and end up seeing dangers all around, so that parents increasingly limit their children’s independence and therefore their chances of being wrong. This robs them of the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and become more resilient.
If children do not make mistakes, they do not learn
Each generation is different, but a few years ago psychologists and teachers raised the alarm when they detected that a worrying decrease in our resilience capacity is taking place. Research conducted at Frostburg State University, for example, found that millennials who graduated between 2004 and 2008 had lower resilience than those who graduated before 1987.
Another study carried out at the Texas Christian University revealed that neuroticism has been increasing in the new generations. Neuroticism is a personality trait that implies a tendency to emotional instability. These people are more nervous, hyper reactive and extremely susceptible, prone to frequent mood swings and anxiety. They tend to make a storm in a teacup, which is not surprising if they were not allowed to develop the necessary skills to solve conflicts and problems as children.
The curious thing is that these generational deficiencies seem to be quite widespread throughout the world, since another investigation carried out at the Autonomous University of Nuevo León found that the generation of baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964, children of those who lived in some way World War II) are the ones who have developed a higher tolerance for frustration, while many millennials and those of the X generation have virtually no such ability to deal with adversity and setbacks with fortitude and calm, without becoming angry, sad, or distressed excessively.
Although there are different ways of learning and all of them do not require following the “hard path”, there are also abilities such as resilience, tenacity, tolerance for frustration or the ability to remain calm that are developed and put to the test in difficult times. If we do not allow children to make mistakes and save them all the effort, they will not learn to deal with their mistakes, they will not know how to solve them and, above all, they will not be able to deal with adversity.
Roadmap for parents
• Give them the space they need
Have you ever stopped your child from doing something because you could do it better or faster? It is likely that you have done it on more than one occasion, especially when you were in a hurry or lost patience. However, children need time and space to learn. They need you to trust them to develop their abilities and to allow them to make mistakes and start over.
Children are capable of doing many things, but they have to gradually discover how far they can go. And generally that path is full of mistakes and setbacks. You cannot learn to walk without falling, in the same way that we cannot be resilient or persevering without facing setbacks and failures. Your child may not fold his clothes perfectly in the drawers or add salt instead of sugar in his first recipe, but those mistakes are part of the learning process.
• Praise the effort, not the results
Making mistakes is not pleasant, but if you teach your children that they should not fear mistakes, everything will be much more bearable. A classic study in psychology showed that when children are praised exclusively for their results, they become more reluctant to take on challenges because they want to avoid making mistakes. On the other hand, when their effort is praised, they become more likely to seek new challenges that allow them to continue learning.
Praising effort and attitude helps develop a growth mindset. Encourage children to try again and set new goals that allow them to develop their skills. In addition, in this way children will not anchor mistakes to their worth as people. They will understand that they can be wrong and that this does not mean that they are worth less, which will shield their self-esteem for life.
• Normalize the errors
Mistakes are part of life, we cannot avoid them. However, early childhood education is largely focused on punishing mistakes, both at school and at home. So children can end up developing a real fear of being wrong. To avoid this, it is convenient to normalize and relativize the errors. If children see that their parents are wrong and survive, facing it calmly, they will understand that it is normal.
Those moments when we give the “wrong answer” are really full of opportunities to learn, especially when we teach the little ones to correct their mistakes. As parents, you can take advantage of these mistakes to help your children understand the root of the problem, so that they can change their habits so that they do not stumble over the same stone again. In this way, mistakes are transformed into opportunities for reflection, growth and change.
• Support them more like grandparents and less like parents
Most parents who sign their kids up for sports have good intentions: get them to be active, spend time outside, learn to be part of a team, and have fun. However, as soon as the time for the competition arrives, they become referees giving instructions, questioning the coaches and reprimanding the children’s mistakes.
In this sense, coaches Bruce Brown and Rob Miller asked college athletes what their worst sports memory was and they answered that it was the trip back home with their parents. They gave them too much advice and little support. They criticized a lot and valued little the effort. Instead, their grandparents did not criticize them, but supported them, an attitude that not only made them feel better, but also encouraged them to improve.
Of course, all of that doesn’t mean kids have carte blanche to do whatever they want, but parents can apply the French concept of cadre, which means setting firm boundaries in some areas by creating a strict framework within which kids can move with some freedom and autonomy.
González, M. T. & Landero, R. (2021) Diferencias en tolerancia a la frustración entre Baby Boomers, Generación X y Millennials. Ansiedad y Estrés; 5(27): 89-94.
Stewart, K. D. & Conway, P. (2010) Comparing Millennials to pre-1987 students and with one another. North American Journal of Psychology; 12(3): 579-602.
Scollon, C. N. & Diener, E. (2006) Love, work, and changes in extraversion and neuroticism over time. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; 91(6): 1152–1165.