As parents we do our best to raise successful children. We have better insight into developmental biology today than any prior generation. Have we learnt from our mistakes?
I participated in a wonderful conference last week, attended by a group of highly successful entrepreneurs and business leaders. Two different speakers made powerful statements that provide insights that should fuel our parenting competence.
A charismatic serial entrepreneur, who has built as many successful companies as he has enjoyed adult years introduced himself with provocative self-depreciation. With a twinkle in his eye, he boasted that he had “failed his way to success”. Later in the day, a warm and wise advisor to some of the wealthiest families on the planet shared his experience in helping the super wealthy prepare their children for the responsibility of their legacies. He urged the audience to “let them fail”! His advice was as jarring for a caring parent as the airline direction to put your own oxygen mask on first – but every bit as true.
Mother Nature has spent millions of years building and enhancing the human brain. A grossly over-simplified account describes three major components. At its center, our primitive brain (also known as our Reptilian Brain) is designed to ensure our survival. Its currency is fear, and guides us to fight or flight. Surrounding this primal foundation is our emotional brain. Mother Nature gifted early mammals with the ability to nurture their young and collaborate with other adults. The currency of our emotional brain, not surprisingly, is love. Finally, in an act of supreme generosity, she awarded higher mammals (including humans) with a powerful cognitive brain, empowering us with thought and reason. The brain has many other centers with specialized functions, but these three largely govern our actions and reactions.
When we approach a new challenge, we seek advice from these three centers. Our brain goes through this internal consultation at lightning speed, but I’ll slow it down for the purpose of understanding.
First, we consult our primitive brain. With grim dedication, it identifies every possible danger inherent to the task, and comes back with a long list of reasons why we should not do it. Then we ask our emotional brain for advice, and it responds with suggestions as to how different approaches will make us (and others) feel about our actions. When we get to our cognitive brain, it often pauses for a moment, before laying out rational descriptions and explanations for the array of possible approaches we might adopt in a deliberate, logical fashion, assimilating as many facts as possible to inform the alternatives. Throughout, we send an army of little messengers into the libraries of our brain, searching for memories that might inform our deliberations. Finally, we integrate all of this information into a decision and an action plan.
To be good human parents, we need to allow our children the space to practice and perfect this extraordinarily complex task. In the beginning, of course, they’re not at all equipped to do so, and we appropriately make all their decision for them. As they (and we) mature, we hopefully withdraw our control, offering direction, and subsequently only suggestion as their competence and experience grows. Eventually, but not invariably, we stand back allowing them to do it all on their own.
And they make mistakes! Yes, thank goodness, they make mistakes.
But, before you say “you see, I told you so”, let me hasten to describe the next critical phase in the complex neurological process of decision-making. The mental processing doesn’t stop once we reach a decision. Instead, our brain continues to work hard, observing and documenting our progress, making corrective adjustments as necessary in order to ensure our safety and success. And it learns so much more when we make mistakes than when we get it all right. Or rather, it learns so much more when we make our own mistakes than when our parents get it all right.
This is the simple reason that we parents need to stand back, allowing our children to compute risk and reward for themselves. We need to allow them to make bad decisions – many mistakes if we want them to be really successful. Each time we allow our children to fail, we equip them with a flood of data, eagerly stored by their primitive, emotional and cognitive brains, increasing their computing power exponentially.
Just as important, we need to affirm them in every step of this complex journey, including (I would say especially) when they fail! When we reprimand them for failure or poor decisions, we magnify only the negative voice of their reptilian brains, making them either fearful or rebellious as they pursue their onward journey.
Not every parent would agree with mother Branson’s vigorous approach to learning. She threw young Richard out of the car at an early age, expecting him to find his own way home, often from distant and unknown places, with no map or guide. It’s hard to argue against her method when we see the entrepreneurial genius she produced. While each of us must find our own balance, I would suggest that most of us take on too many of our children’s challenges for them, denying them growth and retarding their success.
I wish you wisdom and courage as you give your children space to take risks and to fail their way to success.