Expert commentary: Let your kids fail once in awhile

(Editor's note: Judy Lyden has worked with very young children for over thirty years. She's been a preschool teacher for over twenty. She co-owns the Garden School, an early childhood academic center, with Edith St. Louis. )

Robert Frederick went to sea at 14. It was 1921. From a publisher's bio written in 2006, we hear also that Robert Frederick formed, trained, and then led a First Special Service Force known as the Devil's Brigade. In his life, he had the distinction to be the youngest ground forces general, the youngest division commander, and one of the most decorated American soldiers in World War II. In peace as in war, Robert Frederick was an intelligent independent thinker whose bravery and creativity would seem mythical if not documented.

So this young man who deemed himself fully grown at 14 just took himself out to a non mechanized sea full of storms; a sea lacking trusted communication. He took himself into a danger zone away from the safety of his home. Where were his parents and did anyone care?

What would we think today? Are things so very different concerning 14 year olds? How would our 14 year olds fare at sea? Where are the 14 year old Robert Fredericks today?

Mostly on Ritalin, I would imagine, and repressed into playing video games and being escorted in the back seats of cars taken to organized play where the careful eyes of trusted adults can manage their recreation time right down to the very last second.

Boys aged fourteen have enough trouble sitting in a desk seven hours a day, you say, and nearly faint when asked to clean their rooms. They have to be shouted at to take a shower, so we don't have to wonder how it would be for them on a rough sea a thousand miles from land.

I say, today the average 14 year old boy is bored to death with escorts and showers and organized play. I say he's hanging on with gritted teeth waiting for some green light to enjoy the same sense of freedom Robert Frederick took for himself at 14. But could the modern young boy do what Frederick did? It depends on the boy, and it depends on his family.

The truth is Robert Frederick probably suffered a lot. He was probably cold, hungry and hurt more times than he could remember. He probably cried for his mother and father, and he probably cried a lot for himself, but it didn't destroy his spirit; it only helped to fuel his strength and vigor and make him wise and fearless throughout his life. Are we ready to let our 14 year old boys experience that?

There are three great literary obstacles we can apply to life today as any time because they speak of what it's like to be human in the world: Man against nature; man against himself; and man against man. Robert Frederick was probably no better ready to take on these life time obstacles than the children of today. The difference is he was allowed to do it, and he succeeded, and the trials he accepted made him a spectacular person.

So how do we help young men become great young men? Somewhere along the line we have to remember to let go. Managing a child in infancy is different from managing the toddler. Toddlers require a different care from the preschooler. When children begin school, they need to be let go a little to find their own way in the crowd. When children go to the junior high, they need even more freedom, and lastly in high school trust is the key element that will either break or make the young person's life.

If parents establish simple guidelines without repressive rules and quit expecting a child to remain young, a child will naturally trust his parents and parents will get in the habit of trusting the child. Children need our belief in them, not our skepticism and our criticism.

Ask yourself, what can this child - whatever his age - do all by himself? If he fails, he tries again. Parents need to remember that a child's failure is not their failure. Letting a child fall on his face and then pick himself up, all by himself, helps him to understand just about where his mettle is.

Protecting children from being independent will keep the video games going long into their twenties and make pushing them from the nest a real problem. Remember Robert Frederick when you look at your child and ask yourself, if my child were suddenly thrown from the cruise deck of an ocean liner, how would he fare? Then, in the New Year, get busy giving him the best chance ever. Trust.