Can I pour that juice for you? Are you sure that’s the right answer? We ask our kids lots of questions each day in the hopes of avoiding minor messes and stained shirts, and because we want to build up their confidence. But here’s one question we should be asking instead:
Should We Let Our Kids Fail?
It’s a scary concept. As parents, we want to see our kids succeed in everything they do, whether it’s acing their science homework, making the varsity softball team or simply making a sandwich without smearing peanut butter and jelly all over the kitchen. And often, we try to push our kids toward success with constant reminders and prodding, and we jump in to rescue them when we see a risk of failure. But is that more hurt than help?
We’re well-intentioned as parents, wanting to keep our kids happy and feeling good about themselves and their accomplishments. But when kids don’t experience what it’s like to fail, they miss the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and know how to improve for the future. Kids that don’t know failure have trouble knowing what to do when problems do arise – they don’t have the confidence to take risks, they won’t courageously face their problems head-on or roll with the punches. As parents, we can be overly focused on the short-term success, not knowing that we’re affecting our kids’ potential to achieve success in the long run.
Kids Learn Skills Through Failing
When we allow our kids to face failure, they learn to find creative solutions to their problems. When we rescue them, kids may think that everyone always wins or that things always work out – and that’s not true. According to child and adolescent psychologist Dr. Jennifer Hartstein, kids that are constantly bailed out of problem situations will come to avoid situations where they might fail. As they grow older, that can increase anxiety and depression when they need to depend on themselves in tough situations.
So, is it time to ask, should I let my kids fail? Don’t get caught up in the words – making mistakes is a normal part of everyday life. Mistakes make us human, not failures. Mistakes are a chance to learn and will help us adapt to new and difficult situations as we encounter them throughout life. In the long run, making mistakes and learning from them will give our kids more self-confidence and resiliency than when we swoop in to save them from failure. Here are some great strategies to help your kids face failure and learn from the experience:
- Take a leap – as a family. Let your kids know that risk-taking is an important value in your family, and follow through with your actions. Share with your children how you’ve made mistakes and kept on trying. When risk-taking is a family value, kids will want to take on more new challenges and experiences, whether it’s trying the scariest roller coaster in the park or signing up for calculus. You’ll also be more comfortable with trying things outside your comfort zone, like picking up a hammer for Habitat for Humanity, learning a new language or starting a new exercise program.
- It’s okay for failure to be familiar. No matter what it is – tying our shoes, sinking free throws or diagramming a sentence – we’re bound to have a few hiccups along the way as we learn. Make sure your kids know to expect some failures as they try new things and let them know that it’s normal and expected. Emphasize the positives of learning from your mistakes and how we can learn from our miscues.
- Look at those who have risen above. Some of the most successful people in the world, from business tycoons to all-star athletes, had to overcome major obstacles and failures throughout their careers – think Michael Jordan, Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey. Share these stories with your children, and pepper the conversation with personal stories of how you’ve improved following difficulties in your own life.
- Run a post-game analysis. While we naturally want to step in when our kids do fail, we need to avoid rescuing them. We can, however, support them and do a run-down of what happened and what to try next time. Try empathizing, saying, “I can tell that was hard for you. So now that you’ve been through this, what would you try next time?” Don’t solve all the problems for them, but allow them to build up their critical thinking skills to help them come to a better result in the future.
- Support your student by letting go. Many times parents feel just as much pressure for their kids to bring home a straight-A report card as the students do. School is one of the hardest places to let our kids fail, but it’s one of the best – and most important – places for them to learn to take on responsibility for their own success. Learning to manage assignments and practices, dealing with teachers and classmates, and improving their work will all serve them well as they head to college and the workforce, and in everyday life. This doesn’t mean being removed from your kids’ homework or activities, but offering the right kind of support.
Be clear that how your kids do in school is up to them, and give them the tools and resources to solve problems when they arise. Help them to recognize when they may be struggling and how to deal with it – talking to the teacher after class or studying with a friend, for example. Run through how a meeting with a teacher to discuss a test grade might go – but make sure your student goes to the teacher, not you. And if the report card comes home with poor grades, let your kids experience the consequences of the situation to truly learn an important lesson. Encourage and support them in raising their grades, but make sure the responsibility to improve is in their hands. As they earn grades that they have worked so hard to achieve, they will be proud of what they’ve done, and they’ll have a great work ethic and sense of responsibility to carry them through college and beyond.
Disappointment is a regular aspect of all our lives, so the answer to “should I let my kids fail?” is clear: giving our kids the tools they need to roll with the punches and bounce back from failure will be a lesson that will serve them the rest of their life. As much as we’d like to, we can’t protect our kids forever, but we can give them the skills to be the best they can be. Early experiences with failure will help them make tough decisions as they grow older and ultimately guide their successes.
About the Author
Nationally recognized parenting expert Amy McCready is the Founder of Positive Parenting Solutions and the best selling author of The “Me, Me, Me” Epidemic – A Step-by-Step Guide to Raising Capable, Grateful Kids in an Over-Entitled World and If I Have to Tell You One More Time…The Revolutionary Program That Gets Your Kids to Listen Without Nagging, Reminding or Yelling. As a “recovering yeller” and a Certified Positive Discipline Instructor, Amy is a champion of positive parenting techniques for happier families and well-behaved kids. Amy is a TODAY Show contributor and has been featured on CBS This Morning, CNN, Fox & Friends, MSNBC, Rachael Ray, Steve Harvey & others. In her most important role, she is the proud mom of two amazing young men.