Feel like a failure as a parent? You may be doing everything exactly right.

The other day, in the midst of the Worst Head Cold Ever (turned out to be a sinus infection, during which I’ve still shuttled and cleaned and fed my kids — there are no sick days in parenting, but I digress), I interviewed a child psychologist at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City for a magazine story I’m working on. Writers will know just what I’m talking about: Sometimes you do interviews, get the stuff you need, and move on. Other times, much rarer, your brain is firing like mad the whole time you’re talking. Sure, you’re getting what you need for the story at hand, but you’re also getting a million other ideas, and things you felt like you already knew, deep in your sinus-infection-addled brain, were True.

That’s how I felt talking to this expert. She told me about a famous (now deceased) British psychologist, named D.W. Winnicott, the guy who came up with the concept of the good-enough mother. Another of his core beliefs, this doc told me, because it was germaine to our conversation, is that to be a good parent, you have to gradually and minutely fail your child.


She explained further: It’s not that you should Fail your child with a capital F (not feed them, not hug them, not pick them up from soccer practice, you get the idea). But you are doing it right when you execute these teeny-tiny failures. Like, when they’re infants, you let them cry on the fourth hour of colic so you can take a shower, presuming the baby’s safe. Like, when you need to get out for a date night, you leave your 8-month-old, even though she’s deep in her separation-anxiety phase, with her grandmother or trusted sitter. Or like when you don’t lobby the first-grade teacher for a better grade on the spelling test because if she doesn’t turn that 90% into 100%, your child is ruined forever. That last one may be a joke, but only slightly–because if you take this line of thought to its logical conclusions, you end up either a hovering “helicopter parent,” or you don’t. Don’t is what Winnicott was talking about, decades before anyone coined the term helicopter parenting. Don’t is what I’m talking about there.

It’s hard sometimes. And it’s in those tough spots that we learn–us and our kids.

The failures–those teeny, tiny failures–are, the psychologist I talked to explained, stresses on your child’s growing brain. Good stresses. The kind of stresses that compel and propel them to stretch and grow. To learn that there are ways to soothe yourself out of a crying gag; to learn that grandma’s nice to stay with, and mom always comes back; to learn that if you write n’s that look like h’s, you’re going to get a 90% on the spelling test.

I love this concept. I love the idea that when I let my son glue the parts of the snowman all over the construction paper at that first library Mommy & Me class, I was doing him a solid, as compared to the other moms that dotted the pieces with glue, and guided their children’s hands to create perfectly proportioned snowmen.

At the time, I was thinking I had better things to do than create a snowman in the basement of the library. But watching my son struggle and get glue on the wrong side and paste the poor snowman’s head to the table instead of the paper was the best thing I could have done. Minute failures.

Have you failed your kid today?