The Importance of Letting Our Kids Fail

There is an old Japanese saying that says; knocked down seven, get up eight. For those of us facing the daunting challenge of raising the next generation, it is probably one of most important ideas to think about.  The proverb suggests that no matter how many times we fail at something we should pick ourselves up and try again.  But the idea of failure, especially when it comes to our kids, can be a tricky thing for us parents to accept.

From the time we first find out we are to become parents our first thoughts turn to safety.  We learn baby CPR, we research car seats and we buy little pieces of plastic to shove in our electrical outlets to protect our little ones on the move.  And of course, this all makes sense.  As parents we want to keep our children safe, we don’t want them to experience pain; we want them to know all the happiness life has to offer.

However, the reality is that life is not always going to be kind or easy or pain free, and part of being a parent means preparing children for the whole range of human experiences.  This means that sometimes the kindest thing we can do is to stand back and let them fail.

Mom consoles son

It isn’t easy seeing your child fail but many lessons can be learned to lead to understanding and success.

As parents we want our kids to make the team, to excel in school, to have a wide circle of friends, but when our kids experience nothing but success they are missing out on the important development of an essential skill:  how to deal with failure.

It turns out, there are some great lessons to be learned by failing.  It is through failure that we learn to persevere, how to set goals and problem solve.    When our children do not make the team they are trying out for, they might very well be disappointed.  That is a natural emotional response. However, in our modern parenting paradigm the first reaction we have as parents is to jump in to protect our child from feeling any kind of upset.

When our kids fail we have the opportunity to help them understand that disappointment is a part of life. Not everything will go their way, but that they can decide what they want to do with that experience.

If a child really wants to make the volleyball team, parents can help them to understand what they can do to make that happen. It is an opportunity for children to learn that when they really want something, they have to come up with a plan to reach their goal.

As a teacher, I see the power of failure all the time, which granted, may sound counterintuitive.  Of course, as teachers, we want our students to be successful.  We want them to do well on their assignments and tests, and to have a connection to the wider school community through various extra-curricular activities.

However, the reality is that this is not going to be the experience for most students most of the time.  Most students will under-perform or fail on something at least once during their academic career.

Sometimes, the possibility of failure can be a powerful motivator.

For example, I have had several students over the years who were not performing as well as they needed to be in English.  Working together we set goals for improvements and designed a plan to meet the goals.  Through this process my students learned not only the course content but also how to set a goal, develop a plan, to revise it as needed, and then to be very proud of what they accomplished.

The reward is not only a passing grade but more importantly the development of well- deserved self-esteem that came from hard work and determination, not just natural ability or parent’s praise.

They have learned an invaluable life skill that will have far reaching meaning to daily life beyond the use of metaphor in Shakespeare:  how to dig deep and work hard to accomplish a goal. That is a lesson they can apply to any aspect of their lives moving forward.

In a time where helicopter parents often stay up later than their children to make sure a project gets done, we as parents must really think long and hard about what skills we want our children to have as adults.

Do we want them to wilt in the face of adversity? Or, do we want them to see a challenge and think that they can conquer it? The answer is obvious.

Children gain self-esteem and ability to handle challenges with each new step.

Children gain self-esteem and ability to handle challenges with each new step.

Here are some examples of ways kids can learn through failure.  Admittedly, they’re not always easy for parents:

  • Think twice before bringing a forgotten instrument to school. As hard as it is, children learn a lot from experiencing direct consequences themselves.
  • When speaking with teachers, be prepared to hear about the areas where children are struggling and need improvement. Work with teachers to come up with a solution rather than placing blame.  It takes teamwork from parent, teacher and child to achieve success.
  • If children don’t study for a test and end up failing, explain the consequence of that action.  Experience the direct consequence for themselves is the best way for children to think twice about their effort level when the next test comes around.

If we as parents truly want our children to grow up to be happy, productive, kind global citizens, then part of our job is to help them learn to manage the whole range of human experiences.

And sometimes that will mean letting them fail so that they will learn when they are knocked down seven, to get up eight. Sometimes we must fail, if we are to learn how to succeed.

Jennifer Anstiss

Jennifer Anstiss holds a Masters of Education in Literacy from Mount Saint Vincent University, specializing in the Early Intervention and Prevention of Learning Disabilites. She is also an active member of the Ontario College of Teachers. She has been trained in the delivery of Direct Instruction Programs and is a Certified Fast ForWord Practitioner. Jennifer's field experiences include over 15 years of private clinical practice and 10 years of Special Education Teaching for both the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board and Peel District School Board. She specializes in the design and implementation of remedial programs for students with Learning Disabilities and Attentional Issues within both public and private settings. Jennifer gives presentations to parents, professionals and community groups.

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