Why It's Important to Let Your Kid Fail

Standardized tests; extracurriculars; instilling a can-do, stick-with-it attitude — much of parenting trends’ focus in recent years has been on raising kids with drive and ambition: kids who will succeed. But the truth is that failure is inevitable along the road to success. 

Are we giving our children the wrong message when we tell them to never give up — but also never let them fail?

What are the benefits of failure?

Failure teaches lessons. If parents swooped in every time a baby learning how to walk fell, we’d all be carrying around 10-year-olds. But concepts that were easy to grasp with young children are a lot harder when grades, sports and friendships are on the line. Sometimes, you might need to remind yourself — and your kids — of the benefits of failure.

Children who internalize the idea that failure is unacceptable are often vulnerable to anxiety, fear change and are reluctant to try new things. They lack resiliency, or the ability to bounce back from life’s disappointments, which is a crucial life skill. Letting your child fail when they’re young (and the consequences aren’t as dire or dramatic) builds that internal strength as well as their ability to handle disappointment. 

It also builds your child’s self-confidence when you demonstrate your belief in their abilities — and your certainty that eventually, they’ll get that task they’ve tried 10 times. Constantly intervening sends the message that you don’t trust your child to manage their own fate — which might inspire them to stop trying to overcome new challenges altogether. Believe it or not, failing and then recovering from it teaches children that failure isn’t life-ending. Rather, it’s just one step along the way.

So, if you’re ready to let your kid fail, how do you do it?

How to let your child fail

You’ve nagged, pleaded and threatened, and your son still hasn’t studied for his geography test. It might be time to let him get that C. Very few failures in life are life-ruining, and at some point, your child will have to learn how to self-motivate. However, that’s if the task truly is something your child has the skills to accomplish.

It’s unfair to present kids with challenges that aren’t developmentally appropriate. Dr. Michael D. Thompson, a clinical psychologist and author of nine books on child development, tells SheKnows, "What gives you an enormous amount of shame and inadequacy is being presented with developmentally inappropriate challenges.” Feelings of shame can cause a lot of damage to children, leading to a deep reluctance to try something again. When you let your child fail, avoid shaming them.     

Stay present with your child, and don’t abandon them to whatever it is that they’re struggling with. Demonstrate a new chore, and praise their attempts to get it right. You can also talk them through what changes they could make next time to do better — like starting to study for that test a week earlier.

Reframe failure

We all fell down the first time we tried walking. Clinical psychologist Dr. Jamie Howard tells SheKnows, “Failing can be reframed as trying, practicing and putting in effort.” When choosing your words to describe what happened, emphasize concepts of trying and learning rather than failure. Don’t be afraid to point out if they didn’t put in any effort and how that might have led to the poor result.

It’s worth waiting to see if your child even views the incident as a failure. Thompson says, “Kids are more resilient than parents believe; they’re more likely to pick themselves up and dust themselves off and start all over again.” In the time it took for you to jump up from the park bench and run over, they’ve moved on.  

More: Can Kids Benefit From Instability?

What to say when they fail

Avoid saying anything caustic, mean or overly critical. Don’t belittle or put your child down, but do relate to them. Tell a story of a time that you failed — didn’t get the part in the school play, failed to block a shot during a hockey game — and model for them how you handled it.  

Validate and acknowledge their emotions by saying things like, “I’m sorry you’re so upset,” or “That was a tough loss,” but also remind them that they’ll get more chances to succeed. There will be another geography test or soccer game.

Failure doesn’t just test our kids’ emotional maturity; our response tests a parent’s maturity. But just like our kids, we can handle it.

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