How to Set Your Child Up to Fail

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.

Shannon Hembree is proud to say that she put in her time as a “peon” and worked her way up to her career dream of working in the White House. She has returned to her roots as a peon – only now you might say pee-on – in her position as a stay-at-home mom of a kindergartner and twin toddlers. She is also the co-founder of Mamas Against Drama. You can follow her on Twitter @Shannon1Hembree.

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