At New Haven, we often ask our students, “What would you try if you knew you could not fail?” This question helps teens see what is possible without fear, but it also contributes to the mindset that failure is bad. We should be asking, “What would you try if you knew that you will fail again and again, but eventually succeed?” Instead of teaching that “Failure is not an option” parents should emphasize that without struggle, there can be no progress. Or as Maya Angelou put it:
“You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.”
In order to understand how you can allow your children to fail, it is important to understand why parents protect their children from failure.
Why Parents Protect Their Children from Failure
Failure is Painful
No parent wants to see their child fail. Failing hurts. Babies bang a lot of foreheads and skin many knees before they learn to walk on their own. The same goes for our teenagers. It is hard to see your daughter pour her heart into studying for a Math test, only to get a C. You want them to succeed, but most of all you want to protect them from pain.
Parents Want Their Children to be Happy
You have all been taught that success is a formula and that happiness rides on succeeding right now. You may think that if our kids mess up in the moment, somehow the formula won’t turn out. That means kids have to do well in high school just to get into college. Then they have to do well in college to get the right job. And they have to get the right job to live happily ever after. This is the script that runs through every parent’s head:
“These are parents who… are so caught up in the script that runs through their heads about how to “do right” by their children that they can’t see when the excesses of keeping up, bulking up, getting a leg up and generally running scared send the whole enterprise of ostensible care and nurturing right off the rails.” –Judith Warner, How to Raise a Child, New York Times
Parents don’t want to be judged
The world often sees children as a reflection of their parents. The common belief is that when your teen fails, it reflects poorly on you. By the same measure, when your children succeed it is an indication that you’re doing something right. No one wants to be judged.
Whatever the reason, it becomes second nature to protect your children from failure. But failure is a part of growing. Even though you have the best intentions, you have to let your kids fail.
“It is a central paradox of contemporary parenting, in fact: we have an acute, almost biological impulse to provide for our children, to give them everything they want and need, to protect them from the dangers and discomforts both large and small. And yet we know – on some level, at least – that what kids need more than anything is a little hardship: some challenge, some deprivation that they can overcome, even if just to prove to themselves that they can.” – Paul Tough, How Children Succeed
Here are three ways parents can overcome their fear of letting their children fail.
Overcoming the Fear of “Failing” Children
Parenting Isn’t a Business
Most parent/child relationships more closely resemble the manager/employee dynamic. If children fail at anything, they are seen as incapable and should be “fired”. The message is often implied or even stated that failure is not an option. As a result, parents slowly take over the responsibility of “managing” academics, athletics and relationships to prevent failure and pain.
Try viewing “failure” as an opportunity to empower your daughter and strengthen your relationship with her. If she fails, be there to listen, support and validate her feelings. Then when she feels supported, ask her what she wants to learn from the situation. Help her work through any disappointment and help her prepare herself to do better next time. Let her try again and fail again. Through this process, she’ll learn that “Failures, repeated failures, are signposts on the road to achievement. One fails forward toward success.” (C. S. Lewis)
Teaching your kids about failure
“Never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat.” ~ F. Scott Fitzgerald
Teaching your children about failure changes your relationship from a “Responsible for” mindset to one of “Responsible to.” Rather than feeling responsible for your daughter and her actions, you feel responsible to teach and empower her.
Feeling “responsible for” children’s actions can lead to parents overcompensating for real or perceived deficits. Just like crawling, walking and language are important developmental markers for babies, skills like conflict resolution, problem-solving and dealing with authority figures are important development markers for teenagers. When parents overcompensate for children’s deficits they rob teens of opportunities to improve developmental skills.
Feeling “responsible to” teach, guide and empower children allows parents to create space for failure and challenges. Teenagers can then use this space to hone these important developmental skills. Over time, the deficits become strengths.
Strong Relationships Create Space for Failing Safely
If your daughter is going to feel comfortable failing, she needs to know that your relationship isn’t dependent on her success. Build a strong relationship with a safe environment. That means evaluating other relationships, too. Healthy relationships between parents, regardless of your family situation (married, separated or divorced), help provide the structure and communication necessary for a safe environment.
Teenagers often use small disagreements or lack of communication between parents as a way of splitting them. This helps them avoid accountability for failure. If you find yourself being frustrated with your children:
- first, look to see if there is a way you can improve your relationship with their other parent.
- second, see if there is any way you can improve your relationship with your kids.
“At the end of the day, nothing matters more than your relationship — not grades, not whether they made the traveling team or their SAT scores. Because in adolescence, when kids can do whatever they feel like, if you don’t have a good relationship, you’re in trouble.” -Dr. Madeline Levine, Psychologist & Founder of Challenge Success, a project of the Stanford Graduate School of Education.
Letting Your Children Fail Doesn’t Mean Lowering Your Standards
You don’t have to lower your standards for your kids, but you may have to change expectations. Remember, when you feel responsible to empower your children, it changes how you approach failure. Failure becomes a stepping stone to success rather than something to be avoided.
How to Start Letting Your Children Fail:
- Communicate: Be open and tell your children that you want to shift the responsibility for success to them. Let them know that this means they will sometimes fail, and find out how they feel about it.
- Strengthen parental relationships– Ask yourself, are you on the same page? If not, what can you do to improve this relationship?
- Assess your child’s needs- Provide appropriate accountability based on age, maturity and mental health/learning challenges. You can’t expect a 12-year-old to learn how drive a car, but maybe she can be in charge of getting her homework done and turned in on time.
- Setup check-in times- While it is important to teach your kids about failure, they shouldn’t have to figure it out on their own. Set up regular times when you can check in with your daughter and see how things are going. In these discussions, focus on providing support, confidence and encouragement for your daughter. Teach her how to evaluate her personal systems for success and provide guidance on how to improve. Just remember that you are responsible to teach and empower your children but you shouldn’t be responsible for their behaviors. You’re shifting that responsibility to them.
- Start Small- Allowing your children to fail is a process for you and them. If you’ve been an enabling parent for 15 years, you shouldn’t expect your teenage daughter to embrace failing overnight. Start small and identify safe areas that you and your children can use to learn how to fail the right way. Maybe your daughter can be in charge of keeping her room clean or cooking a meal once a week. Over time, you will both feel empowered and confident enough to move on to the more significant areas of life.
Parents Need to Let their Children Fail
Treating your children as if they are too fragile to handle failure is weakening their sense of self-worth, ability to self-regulate and capacity to maintain healthy relationships. It increases their entitlement and conditions them to see others as responsible for their health, wellbeing and successes/failures. Parents need to let their children fail. Then can parents teach, “Without struggle, there can be no progress.”
If you want to learn more about the benefits of letting kids fail, we recommend the following resources:
- Scream Free Parenting by Hal Edward Runkel
- The Anatomy of Peace by the Arbinger Institute
- The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey
- How Children Succeed by Paul Tough
- Teach Your Children Well or The Price of Privilege by Madeline Levine, Ph.D
- The Blessing of a B Minus by Wendy Mogel, Ph.D
- The Upside of Down by Megan McArdle
Matt Bartlett is the Executive Director of New Haven’s Saratoga Springs Campus.