The Upside of Failure: Why You Should Let Kids Fail


When Cathie* forgot her school project at home, she immediately texted her mom about it. A few minutes later, Cathie's mom was on the phone with her teacher, explaining why the child wasn't able to bring her school project. Instead of telling the teacher that Cathie had forgotten about it, mom took the fall. She said that she wasn't able to load it up in the car.

If this incident, or other variations of it, sounds all too familiar, well it's because more and more parents are shielding their children from the consequences their actions, not wanting them to experience failure of any kind.

In 2012, a group of researchers conducted a survey of 128 school counselors and mental professionals in Australia to investigate the overuse of valued parenting practices, such as protection and responsiveness. In the study, "Can a Parent Do Too Much for Their Child? An Examination by Parenting Professionals of the Concept of Overparenting," which was published in the Australian Journal of Guidance and Counselling in 2013, the researchers found that more than 90 percent observed instances of overparenting in their practice.

Of the 128 professionals, 27 percent said they saw many instances of overparenting, 65 percent reported some instances, and eight percent observed none.

The overparenting actions involved several themes.

Some parents don't appreciate their children's growing need for maturity and end up discouraging them from developing life skills, becoming independent, facing difficult circumstances, and accepting consequences. The instances cited varied, from carrying a toddler instead of allowing him to walk and finishing a gradeschooler's homework to cutting up a 10-year-old’s food and not allowing a teenager to take public transportation.

When their kids don't do well in school, many parents blame the institution instead of their own progeny's lack of effort. Parents would confront teachers about their child's homework and make excuses or demand concessions, even though the child clearly had no excuse to be given special treatment.

Some overparent by being too intrusive. They want to be their children's friend. They would call their children whenever they are not at home. Others have such high expectations with regards to their children's academic performance and public behavior that they constantly nitpick and monitor their work.

In her book, The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, author, teacher, and mother Jessica Lahey observes, "Today’s overprotective, failure-avoiding parenting has undermined the competence, independence, and academic potential of an entire generation."

The Australian study has observed as much: "The main perceived child outcome of overparenting was a lack of resilience. Parents are not prepared for children to be resilient. They believe that regardless of effort their child must be rewarded. When these children experience failure they become extremely emotional in the school setting."

A sense of entitlement has also emerged in children who had been overprotected by their parents. Inadequate development of life skills has also been reported, according to the study. Because children are shielded from having to deal with many life events, they do not get a chance to learn how to cope.

Lahey shares, "We’ve ended up teaching our kids to fear failure – and, in doing so, we have blocked the surest path to their success. Out of love and a desire to protect our children’s self-esteem, we have bulldozed every uncomfortable bump and obstacle out of their way, depriving our children of the most important lesson of childhood: that setbacks, mistakes and failures are the very experiences that will teach them how to be resourceful, persistent, innovative and resilient."

Instead of shielding children from mistakes, setbacks, and failure, Lahey encourages parents to parent for independence and a sense of self, to parent for resilience in the face of mistakes and failures, and to parent for what would be good for the child tomorrow, not for what feels good in the moment.

"The first step is to get honest with ourselves and our children that mistakes have been made, but that we’re learning to learn," says Lahey.

"The day I finally came to terms with my overparenting, I was determined to start making amends with my children. I needed to do something immediate, something symbolic, and I knew where to start."

Lahey's then nine-year-old son had never learned how to tie his shoes. She would always just do it for him, reinforcing the child's perception that the task was too hard for him. It had come to a point that the child was the only one in his class who couldn't tie his shoelaces, a source of embarrassment for the boy.

But as Lahey and her son found out, it only took less than an hour of effort and perseverance for the child to learn the skill. Of course, it's not always going to be simple for parents, but this is definitely a start.

As Lahey says, "The work of raising a resourceful adult takes time, but it begins with a simple equation. We need to give our children autonomy, allow them to feel competent, and let them know we support them as they grow. This process begins the moment our babies fail to grasp a toy or fall as they toddle across the room and continues until they head out into their own lives. The sooner parents learn to appreciate the positive aspects of hardship and allow children to benefit from the upside of failure, the sooner all of us will have the opportunity to share in the moments of pride such as the one I saw on my son’s face as he tied those laces."

*not her real name

Photograph by Stanley Ong