Let Them Fail

Today’s society teaches us to fear failure. Be perfect and successful, everyone will like you. Mess up and you’re doomed to a miserable existence.

Reality check: you don’t learn anything unless you fail.

As a young boy, Thomas Edison‘s teachers considered him a failure. And he failed literally thousands of times before inventing the light bulb. Michael Jordan said “I have failed over and over in my life and that is why I succeed.” Steve Jobs taught us that it’s ok to fail. He was a college dropout and fired tech executive.

Why are we terrified of failure? Why do we go to such lengths to avoid it?

One of my best choices in life was leaving the business world in 2001 to teach middle school. It was in this setting I realized fear of failure has grown out of control in our culture. Parents go to great lengths to prevent their children from experiencing failure. And heaven forbid they ever feel bad about themselves!

Shelby Smith was a good, solid ‘A’ student. The daily math homework was graded on completion, not accuracy, and was due at the beginning of class. One morning I received a frantic email from Mrs. Smith. Shelby had left her homework on the kitchen table. Mrs. Smith went to the trouble of scanning and sending the assignment to me. When Shelby received a zero for not having her homework in class, Mrs. Smith was irate. She went to the head of school, demanding I give her daughter credit for the assignment. The result? She looked like a loon to the administration and embarrassed her daughter.

It wasn’t Mrs. Smith’s job to turn in her daughter’s math homework. It was Shelby’s responsibility. Her mom acted like the world was going to end, but in the bigger picture, one zero on a 6th grade math assignment does not change the course of a child’s life. And guess what? Shelby didn’t forget her homework on the kitchen table again. She also earned an ‘A’ that quarter.

Parents, we’ve got to stop this ludicrous behavior. We are setting our kids up to fail later in life by not allowing them to fail when they’re young. They need to learn how to deal with failure. How to get back up when things go wrong.

Last week I was helping my 1st grader with a tricky question on his homework, and it was unpleasant. He was disrespectful. I calmly explained that if he wanted help with his homework he would need to change his attitude. He was going to have to finish this assignment on his own.

I got up and started making dinner. My son threw a fit. One of those tantrums that look more like an out-of-body experience. After realizing his demon-possessed screaming didn’t work, he calmed down and attempted as much of the assignment as he could. There was one part he couldn’t do, but he would have to bring it to school incomplete.

Results from this experience:

1) My son and I both learned that he is capable of doing more of the work independently. Now he rarely needs my help with assignments.

2) The little man received a consequence at school. Ever since, he’s been respectful and appreciative whenever he needs help with homework.

3) It was really hard for me to follow through and let him fail in this situation. I learned to stick to my guns and let go.  Let reality be the teacher.

4) He experienced the feeling of failure. He felt bad about himself. He didn’t die. The world didn’t end either.

We can prevent this generation of kids from growing up to be people who can’t deal with failure.

Stop swooping in and fixing their mistakes.

Let them fail.

What are some examples of times you’ve let your kids fail? What was the outcome?

 
 
  • Rachel

    Hi Tracy! Thanks for this thought provoking post! This is something I really struggle with for my boys…being the over-achieving perfectionist that I am! It is so hard to sit by and watch your kids make poor decisions, especially when those decisions may have lasting consequences. Or when your child doesn’t care too much about their grades (so it doesn’t end up being much of a consequence to them!) This pretty much sums up the most frustrating part of parenting for me! While I have not succumbed to the extremes of the mother in your example, I have been guilty at times of micromanaging, nagging, and helping my children keep track of every detail in their lives. All I have succeeded in doing is becoming a stressed out nutcase, and hurting my relationship with them. My oldest is off to high school next year and I am letting go. Yes I am, yes I am…I am letting go! I’ll let you know how it goes :-).
    Miss you!

    • Tracy

      Oh, I can relate. You can do it, Rachel! I’m here to cheer you on. Your self-awareness in this area is commendable. Keep me posted.

      In the meantime, let’s start a stressed out nutcase club. I’ll bring the wine!

  • Tracy S

    Yeah! I totally support this. I refuse to sign my child up for a sports team where Everyone WINS, no score is kept, and each child gets a trophy at the end of the season. Seriously?? What are we teaching our children? Just by showing up, you “win”. It doesn’t matter if you put forth any effort, or practice, because you “win” anyway! I hope that somewhere along the lines, these children learn that life is HARD! You must try, or you will never do anything. Is sad, and totally sets our children up to need hours of counseling, to explain why they aren’t “perfect” like they’ve been told since the day of their birth!

    Please, parents… Teach your kids that to WIN AT LIFE, they must work hard! Life isn’t fair, and no one owes you a trophy!

    • Tracy

      Thanks for stopping by, Tracy! My 6 year old does play in a soccer league where they don’t keep score, which I feel is age appropriate and allows them to focus on learning the game and fundamental skills. Of course the parents are keeping score on the sidelines! For his karate tournaments, though, they do give out gold, silver and bronze medals for each competition. All of the kids receive a participation medal for competing. Again, this is age appropriate. But I do like the fact that they have 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place awards and that not everyone “wins.” It helps the kids learn to be good sports, which includes being humble winners and gracious losers. Good stuff. I had a friend who always let her son “win” at board games because she didn’t want to “crush” him with the feeling of losing. I’m guessing the therapists will be lined up at their door in the near future.

  • Heidi

    It turns out that your advice isn’t just good parenting practice; it is also cutting edge science. There’s fascinating neuroscience indicating that our brains actually form myelin from correcting our mistakes. It’s in the failure – and the correction of it – that learning (and growth!) happens. We’ve all heard that we learn more from the things we do wrong than the things we do right; but we fail to take the lesson out of the classroom and into our lives as adults.

    I had a great teacher who would always tell me that you only truly fail when you fail to learn. Your post is a great reminder for me as a parent and as a life-long learner. Thanks, once again, for a great post.

    • Tracy

      Thank you for adding this, Heidi. With so much supporting evidence that making mistakes is actually a good thing, it’s more and more concerning that we’re so afraid to mess up.

  • http://intentionaljane.wordpress.com Andrea

    This is so timely. Thank you for the reminder to take risk and let our children risk.

    My kids are young and there are times when I find myself wanting to help them out of a situation. When that happens I remind myself that the cost of the failure now is far less than the cost of failure later. I also love it when I encourage my kids to try something they think they can’t do and they discover they can can do it.

    I hope my children will learn that trying is worth the risk and try often enough to succeed.

    • Tracy

      That’s the perfect thing to remind yourself when it’s difficult to let your child fail. The cost of failure now is far less than later. Spot on!

  • sara emery

    great post, tracy. i am with you 100%. of course, i find this comes easily at school with my students (and at a montessori school, it is the way so much is done), but at home, especially with my 7 year old i find it gets more challenging. there is interesting research on this topic in a great book called ‘nurture shock’ by po bronson. it covers many areas in a child’s (and parent’s) life and is a great read.

    • Tracy

      Thanks for weighing in, Sara. I’ll have to check out that book. You bring up a great point that it’s more difficult to follow through on this at home. Sometimes it’s easier or more convenient to just do things for them rather than let them fail and learn the hard way. I know I struggle with it every day!