It You Love Them, Let Them Fail

dunceNever, it would seem, have we been more anxious about making our kids happy, and never have we been doing such a botched job of it.

We pamper them, overprotect them, project our own fears onto them. We send them to school with sanitizing gel (well, about a third of Americans do, anyway), we rush in to stem frustration, stave off boredom, save them from failure. We give them mobile phones much too early so that they can be in touch with us all day long, encouraging an endless state of dependency.

“I wish my parents had some hobby other than me,” lamented a young patient to David Anderegg, a child psychologist in Lenox, Massachusetts. Hyperattentive parents respond to every blip in their children’s emotional radar, schedule their kids’ days with an endless stream of ‘improving’ and ‘educational’ activities, terrified that their young ones will fall behind their peers academically, emotionally, socially. Many parents are, in effect, trying to eliminate the possibility of failure from the equation.

The result? “Well intentioned as it may appear, the net effect is making kids more fragile and that may be why adolescents are breaking down in record numbers,” says Dr. Jared Balmer, member of the Joint Commission Youth Advisory Council, in his webinar “The Four-Headed Monster.” Traditionally, motor vehicle accidents have been the leading cause of death among teens, accounting for 70% of deaths in 2007. Teen suicide rates, however, have been rising dramatically, so much so that by 2030 suicide is projected to become the number one killer of adolescents. 


How many times have we heard this mantra?

We’re so fearful that our kids may be unhappy that we’re making them so. “Kids need to feel badly sometimes,” says child psychologist David Elkind, professor at Tufts University. “We learn through experience and we learn through bad experiences. Through failure we learn how to cope.”

Parents who jump in to ‘save’ their children from every physical abrasion, every emotional road burn, are taking away those coping tools, or never allowing them to develop in the first place.

And it isn’t just parents. A friend of mine described to me track races that were held at his middle school in Oxford, England. Yes, the kids would race, but everyone, regardless of their performance, regardless of whether they came in first or last place, were given identical ‘achievement’ ribbons. That’s very nice, very egalitarian and positive reinforcementy. But you know what? Employers don’t give ribbons (or raises) for simply showing up.

jordanfailIn the same vein, “schools are no longer geared toward child development, they’re geared to academic achievement,” says Elkind. Grade inflation, a symptom of parental anxiety about their childrens’ success, appears to be rampant. When Lawrence Summers took over as president of Harvard in July of 2001, he was horrified to discover that 94 percent of the college’s seniors were graduating with honors. Grade inflation is “a pure index of emotional overinvestment in a child’s success. And it rests on a notion of juvenile frailty—the assumption that children are easily bruised and need explicit uplift,” argues social historian Peter Stearns in his book, Anxious Parenting: A History of Modern Childrearing in America.

“I learned, especially in school, to value ‘success’ and hide ‘failure’ so that I wouldn’t be scolded or ridiculed. That wasn’t the way I had started out, when both were interesting and failure was sometimes more interesting than success because it raised more questions,” writes Gestalt therapist Barry Stevens in her book Don’t Push the River (It Flows by Itself). Our misguided attempts to shield our kids from perceived failure has taken the play, the give-and-take and ups-and-downs, out of modern American schooling. It’s education on Prozac.

recess_largeOver 40,000 U.S. schools have done away with recess. Free play time has been largely usurped by organized sports, managed and arranged by adults, with intense pressure (you’ve all encountered the raging parents on the sidelines and in the stands) to succeed. So ironically, we’re attempting to take all of the disappointment out of development, while simultaneously ramping up the emphasis on success. As Hara Estroff Marano writes in her Psychology Today article entitled “A Nation of Wimps,”  this makes children “risk-averse, it makes them psychologically fragile, riddled with anxiety.” littleleagueboy

“Children need to be gently encouraged to take risks and learn that nothing terrible happens,” says Michael Liebowitz, clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University. “They need gradual exposure to find that the world is not dangerous. Having overprotective parents is a risk factor for anxiety disorders because children do not have opportunities to master their innate shyness and become more comfortable in the world.”

Sometimes it’s very difficult indeed for a parent to step back and let their kids take the knocks on their own. An anecdote: It’s the end of the school day, and I’m sitting on the grass in the school playground, talking to another father. Behind me I can hear two boys teasing my son. I hear him say, “Stop doing that, it’s really annoying.” I glance over my shoulder. My seven year-old stands with his back to a wall, the two boys – one clearly the ringleader and  a much younger one simply aping him – repeatedly saying something I can’t quite catch. I let it go. Let him handle it on his own. For a while. A couple of minutes later I glance again, and my son is crying, the ringleader circling him like a wolf around a wounded moose. I’ve had enough. I turn around and bark sternly, “Hey Shithead [not his real name]! Knock it off.” And he does.

Should I have let things play out on their own, resisted the impulse to intervene? I don’t know. Perhaps I robbed my son of a valuable lesson in dealing with bullies. Perhaps I denied him a chance at self-actualization, whatever that might mean. I’m not really sure.

D on his new bike

Teaching your kids to ride a bike is an apt metaphor. You can hold on for the first few steps, but after that they’re on their own. Inevitably they’ll crash, they’ll fall. But they’ll also learn to get up again.

But I do know this. Kids aren’t brittle psyches ready to shatter at the first sign of stress, not delicate flowers to be shielded from the slightest icy breeze. They’re not perfect, nor are they the smartest, most charming and infallible creatures on the planet. They will fail. Parents need to deal with that, so that their kids are able to handle it as well. You’re trying to raise an independent, self-reliant person here, not a hothouse orchid. Teach them Samuel Beckett’s lesson – “Go on failing. Go on. Only next time, try to fail better” – and chances are they’ll end up a lot stronger for it.


13 thoughts on “It You Love Them, Let Them Fail

  1. Pingback: The Best Laid Plans of Eggs and Men | Field Notes From Fatherhood

  2. I am new to your site, this being the second post I’ve read. I will be reading a lot more.
    I use to be a “helicopter” parent. I am not entirely sure when I realized that it was a horrible way to parent, but I am so glad I did. I think I realized I had finally given up that roll a few months ago while we were playing at a indoor playground. A boy much bigger then my (then) 6yo daughter, came over an hit her over the head with a tether ball. I was ready to jump up and rip the kid a new one, but my kiddo just put her hands on her hips and gave him the evil eye and he ran off. I was so proud of both of us! Since then, I haven’t felt the need to step in and save her. She’s no damsel in distress anymore!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Couldn’t agree more. I know parents here in Spain who punish (well, take away privileges from) their children for not getting high enough marks in school tests. Children aged 6. Por dios! They also want to cotton wool them in the playground. I prefer independent play and the odd bump or scrape which will help them learn how to be safe.


    • I know how these Spanish parents feel, though. Unfortunately, last week our 7 year-old only got 9/10 on his weekly spelling test (he missed ‘verisimilitude’), and we had no choice but to make him spend a night in the little space under the stairs we call “The Loser Room.”
      Really, though, parents often stress about things that are, essentially, ridiculous, but fail to see the larger picture. “Jimmy Haffledink already knows his ABCs but our boy falters after Q. Maybe we should bring him to a specialist.” You know what? It’s not like by the time they’re 10 they won’t ALL be able to read, so unless your child exhibits very clear symptoms of a very real learning disability, the best things parents can do is RELAX.


  4. I knew I’d agree with what you’d written as soon as I read the title in my inbox.
    We even have seminars in Australia for teachers and parents about the value of letting children play. (Concerning state of afairs if we need reminding.) However, no-one to my knowledge is stupid enough to remove free-play recess and replace it with organised sport. I think most schools give ribbons for participation on sports day – the slower children appreciate that – but the stars get their special ribbon and time on the podium. At my most recent school, fourth place-getters stood next to the podium. I think that is an example of what you’re talking about and the kicker here is that it is done truly with the best of intentions – acknowledge effort and talent.
    Commercial interests are creating a climate of fear around parenting. For instance, according to a growing number of tv ads in Western Australian the road to good parenting is protecting your children from ‘germs’, odours, even dirt. – in places that were deemed completely harmless a decade or two ago. Parents are whipped into a frenzy of ultra-protection that manifests in the ways you speak of.
    This comment went far longer than I expected. There is much to chew over on this topic.


    • I’m all for inclusion and making kids who aren’t traditional types of achievers feel validated, but we seem to have abandoned the last shreds of common sense here.
      And yes, creating fear is an excellent way to both manage an electorate and sell useless (sometimes even harmful) products. I have a particular loathing for the modern mania for anti-bacterial everything. In fact, one of these days I think I’ll have to write a post about it. Perhaps I’ll entitle it “Let Them Eat Dirt.”
      And I appreciate long and thoughtful comments, Cuttlefish, so feel free any time. You know I value your wisdom. (Particularly when you agree with me.) Cheers!


  5. I love this! We need to teach our kids HOW to fail better! Failure is a necessary learning experience for life! Let them know it is okay to fail, find the lesson in it, and try again!


  6. It helps me to think of what looks like failure today as a step in the direction of more lasting success. Not that my children find that helpful when they are disappointed by their own experience of failure. But certainly, I agree that experiencing disappointment, failure, etc. helps children build resilience and the ability to bounce back even more prepared.
    Anytime I think about failure and success in the parenting context, I think of Carol Dweck’s book Mindset, that talks about looking at the two as defining features you inherently have and can do nothing to change, or seeing success as something you grow into.


    • It would seem that failure and success, far from the mutually-exclusive model we’ve been given to understand, are more Siamese twins. There are certainly moments when I fail (and fail miserably, almost criminally) as a parent, but overall I think I’m doing an okay job. I prefer to look at the big picture. It preserves my sanity and self-image. Thanks for visiting and leaving your comments. Cheers!


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