I Just Got Owned by My 11-Year-Old

Thomas Fiffer’s son teaches him how to be a less protective parent. 

“To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. To not dare is to lose oneself.” —Soren Kierkegaard

“Raising children who are hopeful and who have the courage to be vulnerable means stepping back and letting them experience disappointment, deal with conflict, learn how to assert themselves, and have the opportunity to fail. If we’re always following our children into the arena, hushing the critics, and assuring their victory, they’ll never learn that they have the ability to dare greatly on their own.” —Brene Brown, Daring Greatly

This morning, I was helping my son troubleshoot something. He’s decided to start an “organization” at his middle school—not an official school club but a private one with his friends that he hopes will eventually become a business—and we were talking logistics. I began mentioning potential pitfalls and obstacles, things to watch out for, and he quickly lost patience with my list of concerns. I in turn became frustrated and said to him sharply, “You’re not trained to see problems.” His response blew me away.

“I’m trained to see possibilities.”

I stopped. What could I say? I was not about to destroy his optimism, dampen his can-do attitude, discourage him and diminish his drive to succeed. What else could he possibly need to be successful—other than my getting the hell out of his way?


After I dropped him off at school, with the binder he’d put together for the organization and the recruitment posters featuring the logo that he’d designed and I’d printed out for him in color, I thought about all the words we use as parents, all the apprehensive attitudes we adopt and preventive postures we assume that we may think are helping our kids and protecting them from disappointment and—God forbid—failure but that actually hinder them and hold them back from taking risks, learning, trying, failing, and trying again until they achieve their own unique brand of success. All the dire warnings, the strict limits, the acute anxiety flooding our own psyches that we inject—often unintentionally—into the emotional bloodstreams our children.

What if we let our kids invest their time and energy in activities and projects that flow from their vision, that demonstrate how they would like to remake the world?

What if instead of all this worry, we actually let our kids try their hands at things they might not be good at, or might never get good at, but that truly interest them? At things that might not be safe bets, slam dunks, or sure things to polish their college applications? At things that might not be entirely safe at all? At disciplines that require gutting it out through steep learning curves, reaching plateaus, and deciding, often painfully, whether to give up or pursue mastery? Or at fun, frivolous pursuits they simply enjoy just because? What if we let our kids invest their time and energy in activities and projects that flow from their vision, that demonstrate how they would like to remake the world? How dangerous and risky would this actually be? What terrible problems might arise? What dreadful outcomes could occur? Or what magical possibilities might be realized?

As I arrived home, I thought about a photo and quote I’d seen yesterday on Humans of New York. The picture was of a teenage boy sitting on a stone bench with his laptop in what looked like the New York Public Library.

The quote read:

“I was always made to feel like I’d be successful because I always did my homework. I wish I’d spent more time putting energy into things that came from myself.” 

I’m not going to tell my son to stop doing his homework, but I have to admit that most of his assignments have been pretty dry, and it is what every other student does. But I am going to stop worrying so much and stop protecting him at every turn from the valuable lessons of failure. And I’m going to encourage him wholeheartedly to keep making his art and designing his armor of the future, to keep recording his creative efforts and funky ideas on my iPhone, to keep starting organizations even if they falter, and to keep being entirely himself, regardless of the cost.

No one’s legacy in this world will be that they did all their homework, filled in every blank, gave the same answers everyone else did, and tried to be the best copy. Our only shot at glory is trying to be our best self and not letting anyone stop us—ever.

Photos courtesy of author, Thomas Fiffer.



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One Comment

  1. Fantastic post, Thomas. I love your approach, attitude, and commitment. Your son is blessed to have a dad who is growing as you are, and who is helping other dads like me grow along with you. Thank you.

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