Why We Should Let Our Kids Fail

Samantha understands but warns against the tendency parents have to shelter their children from failure.

As parents, our natural instinct is to protect our children from harm, disappointment and failure. But doing so is not always in our kids’ best interests.

When my daughter was in fourth grade, her basketball team was on a 0-7-game losing streak with no apparent signs of a mid-season comeback. After a particularly dreadful loss, she ran off the court crying and told me that she wanted to quit.

The frustration she was feeling was legitimate. But I wasn’t about to let her quit. Instead, we talked about the importance of sticking with it and being a team player. She rode out the season, and her team managed to eek out a few wins.

Let’s face it. Being on a losing team is not fun. Getting a bad grade on a test is not fun. As parents, we often take extraordinary measures to spare our children from feeling the pain and disappointment that comes along with failure, or simply not being the best.

But allowing our kids to feel pain and disappointment is not always a bad thing. Rather than trying to rescue them when they fail, or worse yet, protecting them from failing in the first place, parents can use these experiences as an opportunity to show our kids how to cope with life’s challenges.

In her book Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success, psychologist Madeline Levine says that letting kids fail is “one of the most critical things” parents can do. She asks parents to remember how often toddlers fall when they’re learning to walk:

That’s the model in life, for how kids master things. If we swooped in at the first stumble, a child wouldn’t learn how to walk. She walks because she fails over and over and over again with our continued encouragement and presence.

Levine says that learning from mistakes (the kind that occur when parents don’t interfere) is an important skill – one that helps kids build resilience and mature into confident, happy and successful adults.

Sitting back and letting our kids make mistakes is not easy.

For many parents, failure is not an option. Our instinct is to jump in and rescue them when things go wrong. If our child gets a bad grade on a test, we are on the phone with the teacher, complaining that the material is not being taught properly.  If our child doesn’t get enough playing time in a game, we question the coach about the fairness of his decision.

I am guilty as charged. Just last week, I got a panicked phone call from my high school child, begging me to bring in the history homework that he left on his desk that morning. I was annoyed, but I dropped what I was doing to race his assignment over to school in time for his class. I didn’t want him to get penalized for being absentminded, or God forbid, receive a bad grade on the homework, which could possibly lower his grade in the class.

In Levine’s view, constantly rushing in to save our kids leads to a false sense of entitlement – a belief that their mistakes can be fixed by wielding power, rather than taking responsibility. In her blog, Courageous Parenting, Levine says that this kind of over-parenting ends up hurting our kids in the long run:

Steered, pushed and propped-up by parents, kids never develop the coping skills, the self-sufficiency, and the internal motivation they need to thrive as working adults.

Helping our kids learn from their mistakes and recover from failure is one of the most important jobs we parents can do. Rather than shield them from disappointment, we should give them the tools needed to cope with the setbacks that life will inevitably throw their way.

Most successes do not come without failure.

Just look at some of the most successful people in the world: Oprah Winfrey was demoted from her first job as a news anchor because she wasn’t deemed to be “camera-worthy;” Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team; Steve Jobs was fired at age 30 from Apple, the company he started; and Albert Einstein was told by his teacher that he wouldn’t amount to much.

Imagine if these people had given up after failing? We’d have no Cinderella, no theory of relativity, no iPhone!

My daughter’s basketball team didn’t get a “participation” trophy that season, and I was glad for it. Instead, they had an end-of-season partywhere the coach spent a few minutes talking about each player’s contribution to the team. The kids were smiling and laughing. They had formed a bond, become a team. More important than winning, they learned the value of giving it their all, supporting their teammates, and losing gracefully. As a parent, I couldn’t have asked for more.

So how can we, as parents, help our kids learn from their mistakes and bounce back from failure?

Here are some suggestions:

  1. Tell your kids that you don’t expect them to be perfect. Let them know that your love is unconditional, regardless of whether they get straight A’s or make the competitive team.
  2. Stop rescuing your kids. Encourage them to take responsibility for their mistakes and not blame others.
  3. Share with them examples of mistakes you’ve made, the consequences your faced, and how you learned from them.
  4. Let them know they are in good company. Point to folks like Michael Jordan and Steve Jobs who failed before they succeeded.
  5. Help your kids see the good side of getting things wrong. Failure can motivate them to practice harder, study longer, or attempt a different solution to a problem.
  6. Praise your kids for their efforts and courage to overcome setbacks. Encourage them to try again if they fail the first time.

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