Several years ago, one of my kids sheepishly saddled up beside me after dinner. From the look on her face, I knew something was wrong.
There were tears. Lots of tears.
But I didn’t cave. I white-knuckled it through the evening. Everything in me wanted to come to her rescue. I knew if I didn’t, she’d get a terrible grade.
I held firm and she got a terrible grade.
Around that same time, another one of my kids told me she wanted to run for Student Body President. She was new to the school but had already felt connected to the students and faculty there.
The only problem was that she would be running against a boy who had been at that school for several years, was very popular, and was two grades ahead of her. The chances of her winning were astronomically low.
A public defeat is hard for anyone, but especially for a kid. I saw the inevitable train wreck on the horizon.
So you were probably expecting a heart-warming twist where the underdog won and she was hoisted up on the shoulders of her classmates.
She lost. I assume by a lot.
And, as she predicted, she was alright.
We hate to see our kids fail. It hurts our hearts to see them lose a close soccer match or not get a part in the school musical or bomb a test or a hundred other ways they might fail.
We want to insulate them from failure because we don’t want them to get emotionally hurt or to make a bad choice that might have negative implications for their future or to be at some other disadvantage.
Had I not been a psychologist who had thought a lot about the importance of failure, I might have stayed up late and helped write that paper or pleaded with my daughter not to enter a race where there was near-certain defeat.
I might have stepped in when they felt unfairly treated by a teacher or run interference when they had made bad choices.
Many years ago, I was interviewed for a newspaper and the reporter wanted to know about generational differences.
Here are the reasons I told her it’s important to let your kids fail:
You Learn Natural Consequences When You Fail
If you are always rescued from your bad decisions, mistakes, and missteps by others, you won’t be well-prepared for the natural consequences that accompany those things when you are older.
Many years ago, a teenager I knew hit a telephone pole coming down the road to his house. He’d been drinking and feared he would lose his license if he were caught, so he fled the scene and ran to his parents’ house.
It didn’t take long for the cops to come knocking on the door, but his parents would not allow them to come in or to talk to their son for fear that he would face legal trouble. He was never charged for the accident, but this was just the first of many such accidents and problems with drinking.
“Experiencing a failure not only allows us to develop skills for the future, but it also gives us hope in our ability to handle whatever life throws at us.”
Now, I have no way of knowing if he would have had these problems even if they had allowed him to face the consequences, but it seems logical to assume that he got the message early that his parents would shelter him and bail him out of trouble over and over again.
As a result, he didn’t learn to face natural consequences when he was younger, so he continued having trouble when he was older.
This might be a dramatic example, but it makes the point that bailing your child out of failure might spare him trouble now, but might set him up for even greater difficulties later.
Allowing your child to fail is tough, heart-breaking, and sometimes scary, but it’s sometimes necessary to prepare her for the world in the years to come.
You Learn Important Life Skills When You Fail
If you wait until the last minute to work on your paper, not only will you likely get a lousy grade, but, if you allow the situation to help you, you’ll also learn how to manage your time better or figure out strategies to avoid procrastinating as much.
If you run for office and don’t win, you’ll learn ways to deal with disappointment and you may even develop better skills for your next challenge.
If you act poorly in a relationship and it leads to a breakup, then you have a chance of gaining insight and abilities that will help you with your next dating partner.
Nearly every failure brings opportunities with it that can help you develop critical life skills that can make you a better version of yourself in the future. To deny your child a chance to fail and learn these skills may be unintentionally undermining to her.
You Become Emotionally Stronger When You Fail
We build physical muscle by moving weight that is heavier than what we are accustomed to lifting. We build emotional muscle in much the same way. We push through stress and hardship in ways that make us emotionally stronger and more resilient.
“Allowing your child to fail is tough, heart-breaking, and sometimes scary, but it’s necessary to prepare him/her for the world in the years to come.”
Not long ago, I had a teenage client who was devastated by an unexpected breakup. He had become convinced that he’d never find another relationship like this one and the loss of it completely blew him out of the water. I’ve walked through these hard times with many guys, but what stuck with me is something he said through tears.
“I’ve never faced anything tough before, so I don’t know if I can get through this,” he said.
It struck me that experiencing a failure not only allows us to develop skills for the future, but it also gives us hope in our ability to handle whatever life throws at us. We all know life is tough and unpredictable.
Being able to have the experience of failing—safely and occasionally—when we are young gives us confidence that we deal with the slings and arrows of life.
In the next parts of this series, I will tell you five traits you can instill in your children that will help them become more resilient.
But first, you have to be willing to allow your kids to fail so they can learn natural consequences, develop important life skills, and become emotionally stronger. When that happens, you begin to build greater resilience in your children.