Why We Let Them Fail

In my life thus far, I cannot think of a feeling more powerful or fulfilling than parental pride. It’s the feeling of having some fraction of responsibility for this amazing person that is contributing to our world. You watch in awe as they discover life, make connections, and begin to mold relationships. And as they grow and build their independence, you see them begin to own their actions. From the early days of potty training or learning ABC’s to figuring out school and joining team sports, what was once a little toddler is suddenly a mostly self-sufficient middle schooler. You sit back as they say “I got it, mom” or “I don’t need your help” and realize that they are independent little humans who can function without you. They can make their own food, pack a backpack, get dressed and tackle their day independently. While your heart aches a bit at the thought of them not needing you so much, you also feel a deep sense of pride knowing that your children are succeeding in countless ways. You can see the future ahead—the day when they take the keys to the car, or get a job or head off to college—and acknowledge that they just might be growing up.

As our babies, nothing gives them more pride than telling mom and dad what they conquered. I am sure you have experienced that moment when your child won’t even give you a chance to get in the door because he or she is so excited to share news: “I got the part in the play!” or “I finally made a 3-pointer!” or “I aced my science quiz!” They set their mind to meet a goal and invested a great deal of hard work and determination to meet that target. So over time, they build up a sense of accomplishment, self-worth and independence. They understand the relationship between effort and success, and this becomes an internal mechanism for life.

Along the way, we know that with these moments of success comes the opposite—those disappointments that break their hearts and let them down. As much as they practiced or studied or rehearsed, they were not able to achieve as they hoped. And then they have to come home and tell us. They have to face the reality of the disappointment and look to us to lift them back up. They will rely on us for the pep talk or the strategy to approach it differently or to simply say, “It’s ok to fail sometimes.” As adults, we know all too well that this is part of life, but wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could shelter them from any and all let downs? If we could be sure that they knew all of the vocabulary words for the quiz or hit every mastery level on the rubric? If we knew the secret formula to be sure they made the basketball team or won the student council election?

As a mom, nothing is harder than not being able to take away the pain—to see sadness or heartbreak on your child’s face and know that you can’t do anything about it. But what if that was the best thing for your child? What if that moment was actually a point of inspiration for them? Sure it would be easy for you to write the paragraph or finish the project so they make the deadline, but maybe letting them not complete the task is how you support them. How else will they learn time management? How else will they learn to follow the directions or cut back on the video games? It is not really about the failure or the disappointment. Rather, it is actually about how they get back up so the next time around they can make sure it doesn’t happen again.

As a teacher, I knew my students had to fail, and as a mom I know my own children have to fail. I know that I can’t write the teacher for an extension or ask the coach to give him another chance. I know I can’t run home to get his trumpet so he doesn’t lose points. I know that my child will fall off the bike many, many times before he takes off down the sidewalk. But I also know that he will feel extreme pride and joy as he coasts down the street, knowing how much concentration and hard work it took to get him there. And that is where the parental pride feels the sweetest.

After almost 20 years of working in middle schools and 13 years of raising children, I can tell you that fail is not a four-letter word. To fail is not disappointing or terrible…to fail is to find your reach, to find how far you can really push your capacity. If you don’t allow your child to get there, then they will never know how far they can really go. When you step in or take over, you are telling them that they are not capable. When you interfere, you are disrupting the neurological connections needed for their brain wiring to develop. What seems like help is actually promoting helplessness as you delay the executive function development that is so essential in middle school years.

I often refer to this time as a dress rehearsal or rough draft. We have these few precious years to let them make the mistakes and test the boundaries of their capabilities. But we have to let them do it on their own. So I urge you to watch from the sidelines. You can be the cheerleader for success and the warm hug when they are let down. But let them have their moments, good or bad. Let them feel the stress and manage the deadlines. In the end, they will be stronger for it, and you will know just how spectacular and capable your child truly is. Is there really anything more magical?