“It doesn’t matter what other people think of you. You need to rely on yourself.” These words, spoken to me after I was excluded from a middle school party, were a resounding theme of my early years. My family, especially my father, were pillars of the American dream. They were first and second-generation immigrants who, through dedication and hard work, moved up from poverty to a solid and comfortable middle-class existence. My family believed in the idea that with perseverance and reliance on oneself, that anyone could achieve anything on their own. They pushed this value onto me as one of the most important to accept about life.
But it wasn’t true.
For myself and many other young parents, we’ve started out our professional and personal lives ascribed to this very American value only to find that it hasn’t propelled us to the levels of success we once thought it could. This value, referred to as the “bootstraps mentality,” has been effectively argued against with social class movement research, and yet it’s one that often infiltrates the ways in which we parent our children and judge both the success of ourselves and others.
What’s wrong with this way of thinking? That if a person would simply try harder, they could succeed no matter the obstacle, all on their own? The “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” paradigm does not work for three reasons: reality, shame, and self-isolation.
“For myself and many other young parents… [The bootstraps mentality] hasn’t propelled us to the levels of success we once thought it could.”
The first: Cold, hard reality. It’s true—to succeed in anything, you need to apply effort. You need to try. But this doesn’t guarantee success. And when we placate those who try and don’t succeed by praising effort in itself (I’m looking at you, participation trophies), we aren’t just overvaluing effort—we’re undervaluing success. Does this mean we shouldn’t give our kids encouragement to make an effort? Absolutely not. But I propose we shift toward a mindset of expecting effort and truly celebrating success.
This might sound a bit harsh, and the reason it does is the second issue that comes from the bootstraps mentality: shame. We place so much value on succeeding that failure becomes abhorrent, something to be avoided and feared. Because, according to the bootstraps mentality, the only thing we can blame for failure is ourselves.
If only we had tried harder, we could have succeeded. And, since we didn’t succeed, we either didn’t care to try hard enough, or worse! There is something fundamentally wrong with us if our best effort just doesn’t cut it.
I’m not okay with this in the least. Shame is, to me, the worst thing we can make a child go through. Shame doesn’t teach or direct. Instead, it creates the mindset in a child that who they are is bad, that other people will not accept them, and that they must change who they are in order to be worthy of friendship and love. In my years as a practicing social worker, I’ve seen this transform otherwise happy young people into adults who suffer from depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and criminal behavior—not the kind of stuff I want for my own kids.
So what can we do? Throwing away this value that originally was intended to spur the pursuit of success isn’t the right way to go. We do need to grow productive people, after all. Instead, we can start by shifting the way we frame the achievement of success. For one, we need to throw out the notion that failure is bad. Failure isn’t bad. Failure is an opportunity to look at what happened and grow from it. If we can reflect this to our kids, if we can model it, and if we can reward our children not for effort, but for learning from their mistakes, this is a true path toward healing from some of the negative consequences of the bootstraps mentality.
“Failure is an opportunity to look at what happened and grow from it.”
There’s a final piece I’d like to address. Let’s talk about self-isolation. Although this isn’t an overt part of the bootstraps mentality, it’s indirectly woven throughout. The concept that individualism and self-reliance are somehow our “ideal form,” and that we should count only on ourselves to achieve success. Sorry, but I’m calling bull!
We need others. Not just to be successful, but to survive. The very fabric of our society thrives on a healthy interdependence, on people working together toward the greater good. Sure, we can live our lives believing we don’t need anyone else, that we’re somehow better than others by never asking for help, but what good does that really do?
As a military spouse, I’ve learned firsthand the power of people helping people, of being part of a community of parents living through the same stress and knowing that we have each other’s backs. So when we teach our kids that it’s okay to need others, that it’s okay to ask for help, we aren’t just being a bit more truthful. We’re instilling a value that will make them more resilient in their own lives and more attuned with how the world really does work.
You can have your bootstraps, and you can sure pull at them, but teaching our kids that this is the means to success isn’t cutting it. Instead, I’m focusing on guiding my children to see that pulling those bootstraps is just one part of life. Knowing what to do when things don’t work the first time, knowing that it’s okay to ask for an extra hand when they need it—these are the values I care about instilling.★
Jennifer Novak is a content creator and mother to three young children based out of southern Maryland. She works with organizations with an interest in improving outcomes for young children and other industries by providing research, writing, training development, and organizational assessment. She thrives by diving into issues and developing creative and effective solutions.