The Hard Road to Soft Skills: Leaving Room for Our Children To Fall

Pots clanked, steam rose, fresh, tender little bowties swirled together through the mix of tomatoes, onions, and cheese making a sound that can only be described as creamy. I bent down, both hands snug inside oven mitts, and pulled out the perfectly golden garlic bread, and gently set it on top of the stove.  My brain jolted from autopilot at the realization that I actually had both hands free — free to lift, stir, sift, and navigate drastic temperature changes brought on by steamy water and 400 degree metal.


My little “monkey”, usually attached to me in the kitchen as if I was his personal banana tree, was instead, quietly exploring and emptying the cabinets below. As I watched him, my first thought was one of relief. I much prefer two handed cooking at least for the sake of the quality control. I was delighted my one year old could now independently explore, more sure of his footing and with increasingly dexterous hands and fingers to grab things for himself.

Then the voices of fear took over: What if he falls? What if he finds a small, rogue item on the floor I missed and chokes on it? What if he tugs on a sharp object from the dishwasher drawer and pokes his eye? On and on went my rabbit trail of fear. It took everything in me not to scoop him up right then and there and never let go. At least he would be safe right?

I know, it is just us “first timers” or parents of young children that experience this internal battle. None of you, parents of teenagers, are worried about college applications or crazy girl/boyfriends or (insert scary story you read about on Facebook) or anything like that.

We all want to protect our kids, keep them safe, guard their precious little hearts and build up their confidence. We wince at the thought of them falling down physically or emotionally. We want to make their lives easier, give them good things, provide experiences we didn’t get to have or be protected from things we weren’t protected from. So sometimes we help a little too much with their homework, rush in to shield them from the consequences of forgetting an assignment at home, or tell them, “Good job!” when the truth is the work is not their best. We give every kid on the little league team a trophy. We mean well.


What do we want our kids to be like?

But what if it is actually adversity that grows the skills our kids need most? What do we want our kids to be like anyway?

There was a telling Modern Family episode where Claire leaves Haley to navigate home from a dirt road in order to give her an obstacle to overcome and therefore a topic for her college essay. Adversity makes for more than good college essay, it shapes us into the people we will become.



In How Children Succeed, author, Paul Tough, challenges the notion that success is about intelligence and scores. Tough advocates for the power and lifelong impact of soft skills in our children: qualities like grit, perseverance, curiosity and diligence, which can be developed in even the most unthinkable and challenging life experiences and circumstances. In story after story, the pattern unfolds: difficulties produce the dividends. The things we would expect to impede, actually helped cultivate the skills the children needed to beat the odds and become extraordinary.  


What Employers Want: Soft Skills for the Win

Your child’s future boss agrees; soft skills win. A Millennial Branding study of 225 US employers asked the question: What skills are you looking for when you hire? A summary of the top five responses clearly shows soft skills outweigh education in entry-level hires.


So, if we are hoping to prepare our kids to leave the nest someday, here is the secret– soft skills matter and they cannot develop if we stand in the way.

Adapt to the Load

If you want to get stronger what do you do? Challenge yourself with bigger weights. Internally the muscles actually tear before they rebuild bigger and stronger, allowing the body to lift more weight. Wolff’s law of bone growth explains it this way: bone will adapt to the load placed on it.

If we believe adversity creates character why can’t we let our kids experience it? We let fear win when we shield our children from challenging experiences. We play the short game when we argue on behalf of our children for that grade change they may not even deserve, or to be on the sports team they did not make, or be invited to the party when they have not been a good friend. As parents we need to be involved and intentional when it comes to engaging our kids in experiences where they face adversity.

Almost without exception, the major fears in my life, when pushed through by force or choice, became some of the clearest reasons for success or at least forward momentum, giving me the ability, the skills, and the endurance to complete the next endeavor that came my way.  

What will be the load you allow your children to carry?

This blog is part of our Smart Parents blog series and book, Smart Parents: Parenting for Powerful Learning in partnership with The Nellie Mae Education Foundation. For more information, please see our Smart Parents: Parenting for Powerful Learning page and other blogs in the series:

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