Allowing Children to Fail

Failure, Adversity, and Resilience

Most people who’ve lived a little bit agree: the tough times shape us. Over the course of a lifetime, it’s how we handle the most challenging situations that really define who we are. Somewhere along the way we’re taught that adversity builds character, mistakes are opportunities to learn and in order to fully appreciate success, we have to experience failure.

Some of us learn these lessons from our parents, some of us learn them from football coaches and some of us learn them through the school of hard knocks. Regardless of how and when we’ve learned these lessons, when we become parents, teachers or authority figures ourselves it’s hard to watch kids we really care about suffer, as Shakespeare so eloquently puts it, “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Our impulse is to protect, to reach out and cushion the fall and to keep kids we love from experiencing the bitter for as long as possible. It’s not easy, but we know we have to do it: we have to let our kids fail.

The Benefits of Failure

One interesting wrinkle to this subject is that no scientific evidence exists to back up the simple assertion that almost every adult knows, almost to the bone, to be true: failure leads to success. There is no article out there with a title like “The Positive Effect of Failure on Academic Achievement.” You can find, however, scores of articles with titles like “Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail,” “Why It’s OK to Let Kids Fail” and “My Parents Let Me Fail, Which Taught Me How to Live.” Though some of these articles are written by professionals with degrees in human behavioral sciences, all of the evidence they offer is anecdotal and inferential. Nevertheless, most of us believe we need to let our children experience failure.

Here’s why:

Failure teaches resilience.

If children don’t learn how to bounce back from failure or disappointment, they might not develop the traits that lead to success. Children develp traits like determination and perseverance through experiening and overcoming setbacks.

Failure prepares kids for life. 

Things will not always go exactly as planned. Life will have its share of unfair bosses, challenging relationships, and uncomfortable experiences. If we shield kids from these facts, it will be tough for them to adjust later in life.

Failure teaches kids about themselves. 

Sometimes kids don’t know they’re not good at something until they try it and fail spectacularly. If they fail while trying something at which they want to succeed, they can then assess the situation and make a plan: if a kid received a “B” in a class when he expected or wanted an “A,” he can buckle down, study more and see what happens – then he’ll know whether it was ability or effort that gave him the “B.”

Failure gives kids coping skills. 

Emotional discomfort, anxiety and worry are things everyone in life will experience eventually. If parents or teachers swoop in and shield children from every negative thing that can possibly happen, then they won’t have the opportunity to develop the internal skills that will get them through challenging moments that are sure to come.

Failure teaches responsibility. 

If we let make mistakes and really own them, without micromanaging the experience, it increases their chances of taking responsibility when they inevitably misstep as adults.

How to Let Kids Fail

teen frustrated with homeworkThough there is no direct scientific evidence to support the positive benefits of failure in the lives of children, evidence can be found in a related area from which one can infer that experiencing a natural consequence like failure leads to success: the study of parenting styles. Over the past 25 years, the effect of parenting styles on academic performance and overall success in life has been well documented. The most cited peer-reviewed journal article on this subject, “The Influence of Parenting Style on Adolescent Competence and Substance Use,” written by Diana Baumrind, sparked a wave of research that led to the current vocabulary most associated with describing parenting styles: Authoritative, Authoritarian, Permissive and Disengaged.

With some variation, these styles are described as follows:

Authoritative

These parents communicate clear rules and consequences for children and enforce them in a loving and supportive environment.

Authoritarian

These parents lay out rigid rules and consequences and enforce them in a rigid, tough-love style.

Permissive

These parents lay out few rules but tend not to enforce consequences while providing a loving and supportive atmosphere.

Disengaged

These parents tend to be absent as authority figures. They set neither rules nor enforce consequences. They don’t engage positively or negatively with their children.

Reaearch shows the Authoritative Style results in the most successful, resilient, and personally capable adolescents and young adults. Children raised in an Authoritative environment tend to handle adversity better when they become adults.

Love, support, and communication characterize the Authoritative Style. Children allowed to fail in a general atmosphere of support learn positive lessons from those experiences. For parents and teachers who know they need to let children fail sometimes, an Authoritative approach is probably the best method. It creates situations in which children know that even when they fail, especially when they fail, they’re totally loved and supported. Letting kids experience failure does not mean abandoning them. In fact, it means quite the opposite. It means making a commitment to teaching them how to handle life when things get tough.