Why I want my children to fail

October 2, 2013 | Posted in: Early Learners, Elementary, High School, Middle Years

My instinct as a mom is to shield my children from disappointment. I’d like to be able to guarantee them lives free from worry and stress.

That, of course, is unrealistic. Disappointment is inevitable: Things do not go the way we would like all the time.

So, I’ve decided on this approach: I want my children to fail. I don’t mean a big, crushing defeat, just a small- to mid-sized failure that feels a bit uncomfortable, such as forgetting homework, not doing well on a test or losing a game.

While wishing for failure may go against our nature as parents, educators agree that it’s healthy – and necessary. Failing helps our children learn important life lessons about how to adapt, work hard and persevere; they’ll develop coping mechanisms, and qualities such as responsibility and accountability.

“When children fail, it helps them understand that success is not always guaranteed,” said Erin Compani, school psychologist, and CPSE and co-CSE chairperson at Broadalbin-Perth Central School District. “It helps them to build a skills set where they’re able to explore different emotions, such as sadness, anger, disappointment. Children need to develop emotions as much as any other part of the body.”

Carrie Shapiro, high school psychologist and CSE chairperson at Schalmont Central School District, said failure helps children understand they are in control of their own destiny.

“Children learn that personal effort and self-motivation contribute to their success, as opposed to believing that life experiences are pretty much a result of luck,” she said. “If they believe they’re not in control of their own destiny, and they don’t put forth effort for future success, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

That’s why shielding in our children from failure, we actually do them a disservice.

“You’re not teaching them to be in control of their own destiny,” said Shapiro. “They see success as an innate trait or entitlement, rather than something they can work toward.”

Lack of experience failing and recovering from that failure can also lead to self-esteem and/or self-confidence issues.

“I think a lot of our kids are conditioned with this ‘right-answer’ approach. They’re afraid to try things, because they don’t want to risk doing something wrong,” said Michelle Sweeny, a high school math and physics teacher at Tech Valley High School in Rensselaer. “Children need to learn that it’s OK to forget something or not be able to do something the very first time you tried it.”

It’s important to know what to do when something doesn’t go right, she said. And the school years are a good time for failure to happen.

“It’s about failing in a safe environment,” said Sweeny. “It’s not like going into the real world where if you fail, you could lose a job or a house. In school, there are people who can support you in trying to figure out why it happened and how you can do it differently in the future.”

When we don’t allow our children to experience failure, we’re not giving them the tools they need to be independent.

“If we don’t let them fail, they’re never going to become self-sufficient,” said Shapiro.

How can we help our children through this process?

Shapiro said specific support and encouragement are key. Rather than say, “You’ll do better next time,” help a child find specific steps that will enable him to meet a goal.

If a child fails a test, for example, we should encourage her to talk to her teacher about what she could do differently. We should not call the teacher and demand she be given a retest. Likewise, if a child forgets homework at home, don’t jump in the car to drive it to school, advised Sweeny.

“Let them figure out how to make contingency plans,” she said.

Sweeny admitted she has a tendency to be forgetful. “I was that student who was rifling through my folder, looking for a homework assignment. What I’ve done is come up with strategies such as organizational plans and checklists. I’m not going to change the fact that I’m a forgetful person, but what I can do is create some checks for myself,” she said.

“Work on a plan. Ask, ‘What’s the next project? What about staying with the teacher after school?’ You’re problem-solving and giving them support and strategies to reach their goal in a positive way,” said Shapiro.

Compani agreed. “After a failure, you should debrief and talk it through; ask them what they could have done differently. We should provide gentle guidance. We want to teach them those tools that will help them make healthy, acceptable decisions.”

Shapiro said it’s important for children to learn from a young age that things don’t always go perfectly.

“Children need to learn resilience and adaptability. They are experiencing changes they’re not necessarily comfortable with, which are only going to grow as life goes on,” she said. “These skills will help them live a much less stressful and happier life.”

Sweeny said to consider the ultimate goal then map out the steps to get your child there.

“The end goal should be to try to get children to a point where they are responsible for themselves as much as possible. At some point in the real world, they’re going to have to be on their own. Find a baby step to take in the direction of that goal. Once you’re there, take another step,” she said.

Witnessing my children experience failure is one of the least enjoyable aspects of being a parent, but I know it’s necessary. Twenty years from now, I can’t write a note to my son’s boss explaining why he didn’t meet a deadline. I can’t call my daughter’s company and demand she get the promotion I, as her mother, know she will deserve.

So, I do want them to experience some failures now, in a “safe” environment. It gives me the opportunity, with other adults in their lives, to help my children learn to be self-sufficient and independent, to be adaptable, accountable and responsible; to persevere, and to deal with whatever comes their way. And to hug them and let them know I’m there to support them every step of the way.

The reality is, if we don’t allow our children to experience failure, we’re actually failing our children. It’s as simple as that.


From New York Magazine, How not to talk to your kids

An interesting opinion piece from the New York Times, Losing Is Good For You

Failure is an option, from Parents Magazine.

Karen Nerney has been a communications specialist with the Capital Region BOCES Communications Service since 2011. Prior to that, she spent many years as a journalist in the Boston area. She is mom to two daughters, ages 17 and 15, and a 9-year-old son, each of whom has survived the small- to medium-sized failures experienced to date.

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