Letting Kids Fail

Have you ever scrambled to rescue your child from a tolerable, teachable moment? Letting kids fail can be anxiety provoking for many parents. Yet each time we rescue a child from failure, we rob them of the opportunity to handle and learn from a situation. We are also sending them the message that we don’t think they can handle it. Failure is a necessary and inevitable part of a life well-lived. What can you do to help prepare children for failure?  

In modern culture where people’s highlight reels are literally on display, life’s inevitable failures are far more hidden from view. As a result, we rarely see, let alone celebrate, the missteps or failed attempts that led to the successes.

The culture of parenting is no exception. We emphasize good babies, good sleepers, good grades, and good behavior. We praise kids in an effort to build self-esteem without realizing that praise itself conveys judgement. Children who feel judged, even in positive ways, may feel pressure to uphold their “goodness” even at the expense of growth. As Einstein said, “a person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.”

Therefore, children who are not explicitly taught that failure is not only tolerable but welcome may avoid or struggle with trying new things. Similarly, they may be reluctant to challenge themselves for fear of risking their reputation as the “smart kid” or the “good kid”. With limited experience, they may lack frustration tolerance and meltdown when confronted with challenge. They may go to great lengths to avoid failure and may develop anxiety and perfectionism as a result. 


Here’s are some science-backed strategies to help families encourage growth and embrace failure: 

1. Model failure: for most of us, this shouldn’t be too much of a challenge! There are always small mistakes we make (Oops! I forgot to turn on the burner to boil the water!). When we name our mistakes, we normalize them. In this example, I could get annoyed at myself, turn the burner on, and continue making dinner. Or, I could turn to my kids and say, “Mommy forgot to turn the burner on to boil the water! Whoops! Looks like you have 10 extra minutes to play while you wait for dinner!”

2. Encourage failure: “Failure Fridays” is another great way to normalize failure and actively invite failure into your daily lives. I decided last week I was going to learn how to play a particular song on the keyboard. I have never had a piano lesson, but I found a YouTube video with simple chords and my kids watched me struggle with it for half an hour. The thing is, they also saw me starting to get it too! They saw the pride on my face when I managed to string together several notes consecutively. Most importantly, they saw me handle the frustration that comes from struggling with something new.

3. Ask the question:  A couple of days ago on the way home from school, I asked my children, “what did you fail at today?”. My daughter said, ‘writing a cursive G”! Boy, did I love that answer! I STILL fail at writing a cursive anything. I could relate to her struggle and it gave me an opportunity to connect with her and acknowledge her continued efforts. I like to ask all of my clients the same question and high-five them for their efforts.  

Try This: 

Adopt a family “high five” policy for small failures. Make a wrong turn, oops, high five! Put a shirt on backwards, high five up top! Celebrate small failures as human experiences that are part of our journey. Our worth is not determined by our failures. Trust me, I get a lot of high fives in my family. 

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