None of us want our children to fail.
I hope my sons never get their heart broken by a girl. I hope they never get made fun of by their friends in a locker room after they fumble a football or miss a free throw. I hope that they never struggle while learning a subject in school to the point that they question their intelligence or ability. I hope they never lie to their teacher when they get into trouble. I hope they never bomb a test. I hope they never struggle with learning.
But wait…is this really what I hope for?
Are my sons guaranteed an adult life without failure, rejection, or disappointment? No way. So why would I want to insulate them from failure on a much smaller scale? Why do so many other parents jump in at the slightest sign of struggle to bail out their children? Why do I receive so much opposition from parents when I challenge their children? Maybe it is because of a fundamental misunderstanding of failure, and its value to the overall education and success of a human being.
The only way for a person to grow is to push themselves to a place that flirts with failure. I always tell my students that experiencing a temporary, lower-case F version of failure does not make them an upper-case F, permanent failure. As a matter of fact, it helps them avoid the kind of failure that lasts a lifetime. Most students are not going to voluntarily opt into a challenge that pushes them to the margins of failure. It is our job as parents and teachers to encourage them and support them to take calculated risks that result in both failure and growth.
Here’s the catch. When a child experiences difficulty, they will most likely react with frustration, anger, insecurity, and/or self doubt. This is the perfect place for us to explain that life is full of challenges and failure, and that all people face them. What separates successful people from unsuccessful people is that they don’t give up. They keep trying. They keep plugging away amidst failure, criticism, and pain. This develops grit and determination. In the same way that weight lifters continually add on weight to their lifts, resulting in more and more growth and muscle building, people who keep on keeping on develop mental toughness and confidence that can see far beyond temporary difficulty and setback.
The problem is that many parents can’t bear to see their children suffer. I get it. It sucks to watch my kids struggle to remove the bin of blocks from the toy shelf, knowing that it will result in tears and probably a smashed toe or two. The cool thing is that even if the first several attempts end in a fit and “ouchie feet”, they eventually get the hang of it because they learned through failure. We must let our children experience setbacks, failure, and frustration because these are the fertilizers for learning and growth. Whether they fail now or they fail in their 20s, 30s, or 40s, they will experience failure. Our best bet is to let them hit rock bottom now when they are children. Then we can teach them about failure, resilience, and success in a much more controlled environment than adulthood.
Other parents possess a fixed mindset about their kids. They feel that if their kid fails a test, lies to their teacher, or struggles with learning, they will be labeled as some nefarious subset of students. I have experienced this feeling as well. If my kids throw a fit in public, I fear that those who witness the Oscar-worthy performance might deem me to be a bad father and my kid to be a spoiled brat. This is ridiculous. In both cases, it is just kids being kids. Really, it is just humans being humans because I experience failure all the time too. My guess is that you have also endured some level of disappointment or difficulty. The opposite of a fixed mindset is a growth mindset where people see their failures as merely a means for them to continue on their journey to success. Experiencing a setback is seen as more of an opportunity to get better instead of evidence of your inherent imperfection. Why don’t we let our kids start practicing a growth mindset now?
If your child is experiencing social struggles at school with their peers, empower them to communicate with these students and with their teachers to resolve the situation. Don’t jump the gun and try to handle the situation for them. Sure, it might end up not resolving the issue, but your child will have valuable experience with confronting people with whom they are not compatible. If you receive an email or phone call from your child’s teacher, encourage them to respond. Help them to own up to things they could do better and ask the teacher questions when they are confused. Don’t set up a meeting with the teacher until you give your child a chance to fix the problem. When kids own their education, they end up learning more deeply, more effectively, and more intentionally. If you intervene prematurely and oppose the things that teachers are trying to do in order to push your child, you could be preventing them from deeper learning and unknown levels of growth.
If you trust the teacher and let them do what they are trained to do, they might bring out qualities and skills that neither you nor your child knew were possible. If you think your child is incapable of self control when using a digital device, give them a chance to learn through failure. If you think that your child cannot manage their own time and set their own pace of learning, give them a chance to learn through failure. If you think your child can’t write a high level essay, give them a chance to learn through failure. They might just surprise you. As a teacher, students pleasantly surprise me every day when both parents and I step back to let them try, fail, and try again. My wife has been reading a book about parenting (How to Raise a Wild Child by Scott D. Sampson), and from it she shared with me a great principle of parenting. Instead of being a helicopter parent who hovers over their children incessantly, be a hummingbird parent who monitors from afar and flits in whenever they are truly needed and then flits back out as soon as possible. I love this!
Let’s empower our kids to embrace challenges and learn through failure instead of avoiding challenges and collapsing at the first sign of difficulty. There are few greater responsibilities that we have as parents and teachers. Instead of telling kids that they are awesome even though they haven’t accomplished a thing, let’s allow kids to discover that they are awesome by overcoming obstacles and realizing their own potential. Maybe this can alleviate some of the entitlement and depression resulting from unrealistic expectations that afflicts our society today. The messiness and frustration of life is real. We can either help our children grapple with it now, or allow them to deal with it head on in adulthood when the stakes are much higher.
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