Letting Kids Fail

Probably one of the worst days in my storied career as a mother was the annual Cub Scout Pinewood Derby race for my oldest son. Our family was in the process of moving to another state for work so I was shouldering all the parenting responsibilities for my four young kids alone—and I had to help my son build a Pinewood Derby car.

On the night of the race, expectations ran high, but my confidence in our product was at an all-time low. I knew nothing about the time-honored tradition of building a fast car. So it came as no surprise when we came in DEAD LAST. By a long shot. Before even making it to the awards ceremony, I had loaded all four kids in the car and headed to the local ice cream shop to drown our misery in dairy goods. That failure stung—both for me and my heartbroken son.

But here’s the thing: I’m glad for that and many other experiences as a mom. They have taught me valuable lessons about letting our kids fail. If you’re wondering if it’s OK to let your child fail, consider these reasons why failing—when done right—is good for kids.

Is Failure Beneficial to a Child?

As moms and dads, we’re hardwired to take care of our kids. For me, that often translates into making the path smoother and eliminating the obstacles. I’m the mom, and that’s what I do. But sometimes, the better mom tactic is to let my kids fail. Here’s why failing is good for kids.

1. Failure teaches responsibility.

This is the law of natural consequences. What parent doesn’t want their kid to get straight As on their report card or give a flawless performance at a recital? But when a child earns a D or misses a few notes, they will understand the need for study and practice. A little failure motivates kids to take responsibility to do better next time. Donna Volpitta, founder of the Center for Resilient Leadership, shares, “When we don’t swoop in to save them, they’re forced to learn how to avoid making the same mistakes in the future.” In other words, failure teaches kids to take responsibility for the outcomes they want to achieve.

2. Failure allows kids to try.

All too often, our kids suffer from acute perfectionism. It’s a nasty side effect of an almost constant barrage of perfect images and expectations online. We need to help our kids understand that failure is a normal and natural outcome of trying new things. And  that it shouldn’t keep them from trying. Kelli Johnson, educational speech-language pathologist, explains, “Kids who get the message that it’s OK to fail also learn that it’s OK to try. They’re able to enjoy new and different activities because the stakes aren’t so high.” If kids think they must be perfect from the very beginning, they will never stretch and grow.

3. Failure encourages kids to take risks.

I recently attended the annual talent show assembly at the junior high where I teach. I was surprised to see one of my students stand in front of the entire student body and sing a song a cappella. Was it the most polished performance I’ve ever witnessed? Probably not. But was I beyond proud of her for her willingness to take a risk and perform? You bet. In her I saw a resilient teen who can take risks because she’s not afraid to fail.

4. Failure provides kids with coping skills.

The teen years are difficult to navigate. Real emotions like frustration, fear, and anger can arise when struggles come to a child who hasn’t been allowed to fail. Further, children can experience anxiety and depression when navigating failure.  Dr. Jennifer Hartstein, child and adolescent psychologist, explains, “kids who are constantly bailed out of problem situations will come to avoid situations where they might fail. As they grow older, that can increase anxiety and depression when they need to depend on themselves in tough situations.”

Helping Kids Fail Forward

If the idea of letting your kids fail is hard to stomach, consider this. You can play an active role in helping your kids fail forward. This means that rather than letting failure be a stopping point, let it be a stepping stone to future success. Here are a couple strategies you can use to help them fail forward spectacularly.

1. Evaluate to identify the fix.

Following a failure, encourage your child to examine it with a critical eye. Discover what went wrong to determine if different choices could lead to different outcomes in the future. Take, for example, Orville and Wilber Wright and their attempts to fly. They didn’t let failure stop their progress. Instead, they learned from what didn’t work and made changes for the next try.  And if your kid’s failure stems from lack of effort, help them understand the connection between effort and success.

2. Look to role models for encouragement.

Much like the Wright brothers, others have reached success following significant failure. When your child experiences failure of their own, point them to the lives of others for inspiration to keep trying. Business Insider lists 29 famous people who failed before they succeeded, including Walt Disney, Steven Spielberg, and Lady Gaga.

3. Step away and let the failure happen.

Of course, no parent likes to watch their kids fail. But if long-term consequences aren’t an issue, let your kids fail forward with grace. As parenting expert Amy McCready says: “As much as we’d like to, we can’t protect our kids forever, but we can give them the skills to be the best they can be. Early experiences with failure will help them make tough decisions as they grow older and ultimately guide their successes.” Just take a deep breath, and let the failure happen.

The Final Word

As parents, it’s our job to teach, guide, and protect our kids. And at times, the stakes are too high to allow our kids to fail. (For example, finding a phone we can trust for our kids is a must. That’s where Troomi comes in.) But at other times, rather than being harmful, failure can be a helpful tool to help prepare our kids for the future. So, keep the support coming. And don’t be afraid to let your kids fail from time to time.