Source: Sydney Morning Herald
Helping them out … Megan Cliff at home in the northern beaches with Kale, 4, and Alicia, 6. Photo: Peter Rae
Megan Cliff, the mother of six-year-old Alicia and four-year-old Kale, says that as one of seven children there was less focus on each child when she was brought up.
''Having fewer children means you are more focused on them,'' she says. ''They are very precious to you if you have waited longer to have them.''
As a parent and former primary school teacher, she sees things from both sides of the debate on whether children should be allowed to fail.
''As a teacher I used to get annoyed with parents who did all their kid's homework,'' she says. ''But now I've realised that unless you help them, they can't do it. They have to do so much more now from a young age.
''My first project was in year 6 and it was about seeds. I just had to collect all the different seeds and stick them into a project book. I could do that by myself.''
But when Alicia came home with projects on rainforests and oceans, things were different.
''I had to get the books and show her the Amazon rainforest. To keep your kid up with the curriculum you have to help them,'' Cliff says.
''I'm a perfectionist and Alicia is too. She got one of her spelling words wrong last week and she kept asking is that all right and I said of course it's OK to make mistakes. Parents are much quicker to get a tutor for their child than they were in the past.''
Teachers have put away their red pens and parents have become custodians of their children's homework, succumbing to the anxiety that if they don't help their children they will be left behind in the race for success.
With families shrinking the issue is becoming more extreme, leading some educators to warn of the cost of not letting children learn what failure feels like.
Educational ideology in the 1970s dictated that teachers had to be less demanding and more socially responsive to children.
Today many teachers fear using a red pen to correct wrong answers, let alone failing students, according to Stephen Dinham, a former professor of education at Wollongong University who works at the Australian Council for Educational Research.
''We made a fundamental error,'' he says. ''We thought to be more responsive to kids we have to be less demanding.''
Attempts to offer hollow praise had proven counterproductive. ''The kids get an inflated sense of themselves, their ability is fixed and working hard doesn't matter. Then they hit the big bad world,'' Dinham says.
The result of cotton-wooling and inflating the self-esteem is showing as Generation Y enters the workplace. A US study has found that children of the 1980s and 1990s want more leisure time and fewer working hours but without sacrificing money or prestigious job titles. Many had unrealistic expectations of what they could achieve.
A co-author of the study, Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, says that she agrees with Sydney school principals who are reminding parents that it is OK for children to make mistakes.
''Making mistakes and having them gently corrected is one of the best ways to learn,'' she says.
Twenge, who co-wrote The Narcissism Epidemic, says parents should tell their children that they love them instead of saying ''you're special'' and ''you can be anything you want to be''.
''Feeling special often means the expectation of special treatment,'' she says. ''Your parents might think you're special, but the rest of the world might not. This can be a difficult adjustment, especially in the workplace.''
But parents like Rhonda Geddes, of Medlow Bath, a mother of three boys in years 4, 7 and 9 at public schools, say they often feel they have to step in to help their children with homework.
''They get a lot more than what I did at primary school,'' Geddes says. ''If schools are giving them realistic goals that's fine if they make errors. But if they set the bar too high, parents feel they have to help.
''It's testing the parents more than the kids.''
Andrew Martin, a professor of educational psychology and research fellow at the University of Sydney, says that praising a child's success in carrying out specific tasks is more helpful than blanket statements about how wonderful a child is. Allowing children to learn from failure was ''setting kids up for success''.
''Even if you are [a] helicopter parent your child will not escape adversity and setback. We need to instil the courage and positivity to embrace it when it happens, take the lesson and move on,'' he says.
Martin says he is more positive about the youth of today. ''I'd be careful of dumping on kids and saying don't have high hopes. Positive goals and aspirations are healthy for young people.
''Young people want to work - they just want a better fit. That may do away with many a midlife crisis.''
The principal of Kincoppal Rose Bay School, Hilary Johnston-Croke, thinks it is important to remind parents that children can learn important lessons from failures and disappointments.
''Helicopter parents want to make everything wonderful for their children. But babies learn to walk by falling over,'' she says.
''If you sit an exam and don't read a question properly or get the time wrong, you learn from it and you never do it again.''
Johnston-Croke says that schools need to provide a supportive community ''so it is OK to fail without people being negative about it''.
At Kincoppal, students are sent on abseiling camps and excursions to Vietnam where they do hard physical work for orphanages.
The president of the NSW Secondary Principals Council, Jim McAlpine, says children in public schools have a mixture of successes and failures. ''If we expect great things and they achieve great things then we should give them praise, but if they don't achieve as much as they should, then there is no point in giving them false praise,'' he says.
At Meriden, an Anglican school for girls, primary pupils are encouraged to discuss ways of coping with disappointments, such as missing out on a role in the school musical or a prefect position.
The principal of SCEGGS Darlinghurst, Jenny Allum, says that it is important for students to learn from failure and to cope with disappointments. ''If we don't help them to deal with disappointments such as not getting a part in the school play, or not being elected sports captain, then they certainly won't be able to deal with the far greater tragedies and difficulties they will face in their lives,'' she says.