Letting Children Fail

When I think about parenting challenges in my future, I think a lot about failure and perseverance. I’ve always had a natural tendency to not want to do anything I’m not good at, which is something that I’ve tried to work on in my adult years. As such, even though Zoe’s still so young, it’s very important to me to instill in her a desire to work at things that don’t come naturally to her, and to learn how to deal with failure.

The fact that some failure is an inevitable part of living a normal, well-balanced life was a difficult lesson for me to learn. Once I embraced it though, I could start learning how to deal with both the initial failure and my own reaction to it. It’s humbling work, but so important as I try to become a better person every day. It’s hard though: even now, the starkness of the word “failure” still startles me, and I am fighting the compulsion to soften it in this post by changing each occurrence to the more moderate “mistakes” or “errors” — I’m standing strong on this though, which, sadly for you readers, leads to a lot of word repetition!

All that’s just a long-winded (I’ve given up any attempt to work on my failure to ever be brief!) prelude to this fascinating article in The Atlantic, written by a middle-school teacher about the lengths parents go to to keep their children from experiencing failure, and how it can have an incredibly adverse effect on their development. I couldn’t agree more that failure and success are both integral parts in a child’s education, and that school is meant to teach kids so much more than just what’s in the pages of a book.

One of my favorite passages from the article:

But children make mistakes, and when they do, it’s vital that parents remember that the educational benefits of consequences are a gift, not a dereliction of duty. 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.

And a great point from the comments:

One of the best things that schools, teachers, and parents can do for their students is to give them a safe place to fail. It’s much easier – and, generally, far less costly – for an 8 year old to not put in the effort and not reap the reward than it is, say, for a 24 year old to do so.

So what happens when an educational system turns out huge numbers of adults-to-be who have figured out (via their parents’ help, or on their own) how to game the system so that they never have to experience failure? Of course it has an effect on their individual personality as an adult, but what about on society as a whole? Intriguing stuff.

(Photo courtesy of St. John’s University)

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4 thoughts on “Letting Children Fail

  1. I love the parenting books, Love and Logic. They stress the need to fail at a young age and a parent’s job to let them fail and let the consequences occur and offer sympathy and love. It is the hardest part of parenting but it gives them security and less fear. So easy to say, so hard to do. But it’s worth it. In my life, I am proudest of my failures and when I didn’t let them hold me back but fought harder and kept going.

  2. Based on my own parenting experience I totally agree. I know however that parents prefer “no failure” not just because they don’t want their kids to suffer. They also don’t like problems in general. When your kids screw up, big or small, you have to deal with it as a parent. This freaks parents out! They don’t know how to discipline or make mistakes into teaching moments. So many parents just wish the problems would go away, and push off their responsibilities to schools or others. I hope your generation of parents takes their responsibilities more to heart more than my own.

  3. Andy, I love that article — thanks for sharing! I think the practical, pointed responses to helicopter parenting are really finding their voices lately.

    Emily, thanks for the rec — I’ll check those books out! And I agree, the things I think of as most definitive who I am are learning/growing experiences heavily laced with me being stupid or making the wrong move. Stuff that’s often cringeworthy to think about in retrospect, but that’s what makes it so impactful, right?

    Lise, that’s a great perspective — I honestly hadn’t thought about it as problem avoidance for the parent, probably because every issue, good or bad, Zoe has at this age is our responsibility! Good food for thought though — and I have the same hope for my generation!

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