Failure. It’s not a word we like to think about, least of all when it comes to our kids.
In a society where parents have been known to start registering their kids for the “best” kindergarten before they’re even born, it’s not one we hear very often. The post-millennial generation of kids is one being raised in a world of helicopter and lawnmower parents, where everyone gets a trophy and no one dares admit they let their kids eat ice cream for dinner last night.
But enough years have passed since over-involved parenting took hold in America that scientists have had a chance to study its repercussions on our kids, and they’re… not good. One study from Brigham Young University found that parents who are always stepping in to ensure their kids “succeed” put their offspring at higher risk for everything from lower self-esteem to risky behavior.
So what’s the alternative?
According to Jessica Lahey, education expert and author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, it’s simple. We need to let our kids fail more often… in order to help them succeed.
In a 2013 article in The Atlantic that went viral — and paved the way for the book — Lahey said of kids in her middle school classroom, “Year after year, my ‘best’ students — the ones who are happiest and successful in their lives — are the students who were allowed to fail, held responsible for missteps and challenged to be the best people they could be in the face of their mistakes.”
Sitting down with SheKnows this month, Lahey said she often sees students paralyzed by failure because they’ve never experienced it — and don’t know how to navigate around it. Studies bear out this anecdotal evidence: One review in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health shows kids who engage in “risky play” (such as climbing trees or playing with knives — things where there’s a chance of getting hurt or “failing”) improve their reaction time in detecting risk, increase their self-esteem and are less likely to take risks related to sex and drugs as adolescents.” The researchers determined taking risks and getting hurt helps kids develop resilience.
“By not allowing them to fail, we’re depriving them of enormous learning opportunities,” Lahey explains. “Every single day is a learning experience for kids — if you treat it the right way.”
Of course, we can’t step back too far. Kids are still kids, and we are still their parents. But Lahey says there are four simple times parents should be letting their kids fail — so they can learn to succeed:
1. Homework time
“Of course, grades are important,” says Lahey. “And you should have very clear expectations around homework.” That means laying out to your kids what it is you expect — whether it’s all homework done before dinner or on Friday night before the weekend starts or whatever works for your family. But then, she says, you need to let your kids take ownership of that without nagging them to meet your expectations, and let them deal with the consequences if they don’t. “Even the smallest detail under their control makes the homework ‘theirs,'” she explains.
2. Friend time
Every kid seems to have that one friend their parents just do not like. But kids — especially middle school kids — try on friends like they try on personalities, Lahey says. Letting them do so allows them to learn not only about friendship but gives them a chance to see what behaviors these “unsavory” friends they themselves find distasteful (and therefore won’t adopt).
3. Chore time
Do you go behind your kid and refill the dishwasher so the plates sit “just right”? Do you get exasperated and yell that they would have clean clothes to wear to school if they actually took their dirty clothes from their bedroom floor to the laundry room? Welcome to the club. But know this: If the dishes aren’t “sitting right,” and they ended up having to scrub them by hand or if they have to wear a stinky sweatshirt to school, they’re much more likely to do it right the next time. “Sometimes, they have to do it twice so they’ll learn,” Lahey notes.
4. Sports time
Lahey likes to tell parents to act less like parents on the sidelines of their kids’ games and more like grandparents. The difference? Grandparents are typically there just because they want to see the kids, while parents are invested in how the kids perform. Guess which one a kid would rather have attend their big match. Yup, it’s the former. One big way to let them “fail” at sports is not to dissect every bit of the game afterward, Lahey said. That sucks the fun — and the learning experience — right out of it.