Standardized tests; extracurriculars; instilling a can-do, stick-with-it attitude — much of parenting trends’ focus in recent years has been on raising kids with drive and ambition: kids who will succeed. But the truth is that failure is inevitable along the road to success.
Are we giving our children the wrong message when we tell them to never give up — but also never let them fail?
What are the benefits of failure?
Failure teaches lessons. If parents swooped in every time a baby learning how to walk fell, we’d all be carrying around 10-year-olds. But concepts that were easy to grasp with young children are a lot harder when grades, sports and friendships are on the line. Sometimes, you might need to remind yourself — and your kids — of the benefits of failure.
According to the Child Mind Institute, children who internalize the idea that failure is unacceptable are often vulnerable to anxiety, fear change and are reluctant to try new things. They lack resiliency, or the ability to bounce back from life’s disappointments, which is a crucial life skill. And if you let your child fail when they’re young, the consequences likely won’t be as dire or dramatic as if they’re, say, literally failing in high school. So start early, working to build their internal strength as well as their ability to handle disappointment.
As a parent, if you demonstrate your belief in your child’s abilities — and your certainty that eventually, they’ll get that task they’ve tried 10 times — chances are high they’ll echo that belief in themselves. According to psychologist Lynn Margolies, PhD, constantly intervening sends the message that you don’t trust your child to manage their own fate — which might inspire them to stop trying to overcome new challenges altogether. Believe it or not, failing and then recovering from it teaches children that failure isn’t life-ending. Rather, it’s just one step along the way.
So, if you’re ready to let your kid fail, how do you do it?
How to let your child fail
You’ve nagged, pleaded and threatened, and your son still hasn’t studied for his geography test. It might be time to let him get that C. Very few failures in life are life-ruining, and at some point, your child will have to learn how to self-motivate. However, that’s if the task truly is something your child has the skills to accomplish.
It’s unfair to present kids with challenges that aren’t developmentally appropriate. Dr. Michael D. Thompson, a clinical psychologist and author of nine books on child development, tells SheKnows, “What gives you an enormous amount of shame and inadequacy is being presented with developmentally inappropriate challenges.” Thompson explains that feelings of shame can cause a lot of damage to children, leading to a deep reluctance to try something again. So when you let your child fail, he urges, avoid shaming them. Instead, stay present with your child, and don’t abandon them to whatever it is that they’re struggling with. Demonstrate a new chore, and praise their attempts to get it right.
You can also talk them through what changes they could make next time to do better, psychologist Kyla Haimovitz told NPR — like starting to study for that test a week earlier.
We all fell down the first time we tried walking. Clinical psychologist Dr. Jamie Howard tells SheKnows, “Failing can be reframed as trying, practicing and putting in effort.” When choosing your words to describe what happened, emphasize concepts of trying and learning rather than failure.
And don’t be afraid to point out if they didn’t put in any effort and how that might have led to the poor result, urgest psychologist Amanda Mintzer of The Child Mind Institute. She writes on the Institute website: “It’s a balance of acceptance and change. It’s about accepting that the situation is what it is and building frustration tolerance while also asking, ‘Can we change something in the future. Can we learn from this?’”
It’s worth waiting to see if your child even views the incident as a failure. Thompson says, “Kids are more resilient than parents believe; they’re more likely to pick themselves up and dust themselves off and start all over again.” In the time it took for you to jump up from the park bench and run over, they’ve moved on.
What to say when they fail
As in any parenting situation, try to avoid saying anything caustic, mean or overly critical. Don’t belittle or put your child down, but do relate to them. “The key is to normalize failure so your child knows he’s not the only one who doesn’t get things right on the first try,” psychologist Robert Epstein told Parenting. So tell a story of a time that you failed — didn’t get the part in the school play, failed to block a shot during a hockey game — and model for your child how you handled it.
“Don’t just say, ‘It’s okay, you’ll do better next time,’” Dr. Mintzer writes on the Child Mind Institute site. “It’s invalidating to brush off a child’s feelings of frustration and disappointment.” Instead, you can validate and acknowledge their emotions by saying things like, “I’m sorry you’re so upset,” or “That was a tough loss,” but also remind them that they’ll get more chances to succeed. There will be another geography test or soccer game.
Failure doesn’t just test our kids’ emotional maturity; our response tests a parent’s maturity. But just like our kids, we can handle it.