“Please let them be devastated at age 6 and not have their first devastation be in college! Please, please, please let them be devastated many times on the soccer field!”
– Clinical psychologist Wendy Mogel (Gottlieb, 2011)
Michael Jordan once said, “I have failed over and over and over again, and that is why I succeed.” Similar statements have been uttered by a number of other highly successful people, everyone from Walt Disney to Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein. Yet many parents approach failure with precisely the opposite attitude, especially when it comes to the lives of their children. In fact, many parents go to such extremes in order to keep their kids from experiencing failure that many child psychologists have come to refer to this topic as “the other f word.”
“Even more important than your achievement test score is this idea that if you fail, you’ll try again, that you don’t need people to bail you out, that you’ll persevere in the face of difficulty.”
– Developmental psychologist Dale Farran (Wickelgren, 2012)
Why it’s important to let kids fail
Learning how to cope with and overcome failure is a prerequisite for success, and children need practice at it. Failure always comes before success. You don’t excel at something without first failing, and usually failing over and over and over again. Failure is the first step in the process of mastery, and it’s also important as a character builder for children.
“Think of the things you learn when you encounter and move beyond failure,” says child psychologist Rahil Briggs, Psy.D. “You learn how to tolerate frustration, how to get creative and take different approaches to tasks, and how to ask for help – all things that are necessary for long-term success.” (Sholnik, 2012, p. 78) Yet because many parents are busy trying to shield their child from any type of failure or disappointment, their children simply don’t get the practice they need to become competent at persevering and working through setbacks.
A bad approach towards failure can impede a child’s learning. For one, brain imaging studies have documented that a wrong answer or failure elicits more activity in critical areas of the brain than a correct answer does. In other words, we grow more from failure than success . . . the brain is designed to make mistakes and then learn from them. But if children have an unhealthy attitude towards failure, they can get discouraged and stop the learning process before it even starts. More importantly, a child who does not know how to handle failure is also a child who won’t go anywhere in life, because taking any stride forward requires that you be willing to step out of your comfort zone and risk disappointment. If you’re afraid of failure or don’t know how to work through it, then you’ll struggle to ever accomplish what you want to accomplish. Imagine if a toddler got discouraged and gave up every time she failed in her attempt to walk. She’d never get anywhere. Failure is a built-in part of the learning process.
DES No parent wants to see their child fail, yet failure is an important part of the growth process. Learn why it is so important to let kids fail.