Addressing failure to launch was previously published in the Washington Business Journal column, Corporations on the couch, as “Successful parents must let their children learn from failure,”by Dr. Lynn Friedman, a psychologist in Washington DC.
John is a senior vice president of a Fortune 500 company. A star performer, he has been enormously successful. Renowned for his leadership, he is respected by corporate leaders and staffers alike. In fact, he is beloved. He has provided his family with a life of luxury.
As a young person, John toiled evenings, weekends and summers, earning money for college. His own children had it easy. Their evenings were devoted to extracurricular activities, their weekends and summers to camp and trips abroad. They have attended the finest preparatory schools and colleges.
John’s eldest son, Steve, has returned home to look for a job after earning a degree from a prestigious university. He has been looking for the last six months, although — John muses to himself — “apparently not looking all that hard.”
At first John was sympathetic, but his sympathy turned to frustration as months passed. When Steve asked for money, John lost his patience. His efforts to talk with Steve devolved into a shouting match.
Steve, blaming his parents for his situation, told them that they were more concerned with how his unemployment reflected on them than with his fundamental unhappiness.
Devastated, John found himself wondering how he could have achieved so much professionally while failing so miserably at home. He confided in some similarly accomplished colleagues and learned, to his astonishment, that he is not alone. They regaled him with tales of their own children:
- A high school dropout who developed a serious addiction while attending one of the nation’s best prep schools. Now he lives at home getting high all day and selling drugs.
- An Ivy League college student who makes the dean’s list every semester but exists in a state of chronic self-doubt, plagued with overwhelming anxiety and insecurity. She is uncertain about what major to choose. Her anxiety has led to impaired concentration.
- A very bright graduate of a prestigious business school who is working at a low-level job that pays minimum wage.
John is perplexed by Steve’s conspicuous lack of gratitude, not to mention the lack of ambition. More importantly, John is just plain worried. He would like to understand his son’s behavior and help him.
A complex set of dynamics may govern these puzzling behaviors. These highly successful parents may have unintentionally undermined their children’s efforts to separate, leave home and grow up.
Making life too easy can erode children’s sense of confidence and deprive them of important developmental experiences that lead to healthy self-esteem.
John and his colleagues may have insulated their children from the vital experience of learning to navigate failure and to develop persistence.
By indulging him, Steve’s parents may have sent him a powerful, albeit inadvertent, message that they didn’t see him as very capable. Steve’s rage at his father may spring from an unconscious belief that his father views him as incompetent.