Somewhere down the rocky road of parenthood, we collectively decide to do everything in our power to help our children succeed. We sign them up for extracurricular programs, limited their screen time and help with their science projects. We’re so busy setting our children up for success we neglect another, perhaps more important, lesson: how to fail.
Parental Failure Blockage
Erroneously, we’ve come to accept failure as the antithesis of success, when really, it’s part of the journey. And yes, parents can get in the way of said journey.
The concept of “helicopter parenting” has been around for a while. What might be lesser known is the phenomenon of “snowplow parenting” (also called “lawnmower parenting”). This is when parents remove every obstacle or difficulty facing their child.
Attempts made by well-intentioned parents to prevent their children from facing failure or disappointment can wind up having a long-lasting impact on a child’s self-esteem and ability to cope in the world. Teaching kids to fail can be the very thing that sets them up for success.
The Difference Between Real and Perceived Threats
It’s evolutionary and prudent to protect children from imminent danger. Teacher and journalist Jessica Lahey says parents are so bombarded with negative headlines, it’s often difficult to determine what constitutes a ‘real’ emergency.
“We’re reacting to things that aren’t actually threats,” Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, tells Parentology. “It’s not a threat that our child can’t get into Harvard. It’s not a threat that our kid is not the top-scoring player on the soccer team. It’s something that’s beneficial for them to have to experience.”
Lahey recommends parents take a step back to differentiate between immediate danger and regular drawbacks that are part of growing up.
Failure is part of the learning process; it’s not just about correcting mistakes, but learning how to be resilient in the face of disappointment. Dr. Kim Metcalfe, developmental scientist and psychologist, weighed in on HuffPost regarding the imperative to let children fail.
“Parents who give permission for kids to fail are building social and emotional skills and qualities that last a lifetime,” Metcalfe said. “[Including] persistence, positive self-image, self-confidence, self-control, problem-solving, self-sufficiency, focus and patience.”
When you remove all roadblocks to avoid failure, you send the message that your child can’t succeed without you. Educational psychologist Michele Borba tells Parentology she agrees “failure is a part of life, and if our children don’t have the opportunity to fail or make mistakes, they’ll never realize they can bounce back. That’s what resilience is all about.” Teaching kids to fail is helping them understand resilience.
In her classes, Lahey encourages parents to focus on “autonomy-supportive parenting” –giving a task over to their kids and allowing them to get frustrated and work through it — rather than “directive parenting” — telling kids what to do and how to do it.
Lahey makes the distinction between instilling “confidence” and teaching “competence.” “Getting to a place where they really achieve something ― that’s where real self-esteem lies,” Lahey says, “not in someone telling you you’re smart over and over again.”
In fact, a review of 200 studies published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest determined having high self-esteem didn’t result in better grades or professional success, which would suggest self-esteem is a result of success, not a factor that determines it.
So what’s a parent to do? Teach resilience.
5 Tips to Teach Resilience
- Get your child to start doing things for himself, so long as it’s age-appropriate. Have a preschooler? Let him load the dishwasher. Have an older teenager? Let him book his own dentist appointments. If they make a mistake, use it as a learning opportunity to adjust for the next time. Lahey says starting small can have a big impact. “Tasks that are fairly low stakes help them get to a place where when things get to be higher stakes, they’ve got it.”
- Involve your child in the problem-solving process. Encouraging them to brainstorm different options helps them avoid the same mistake in the future, and gives them agency over their own decision-making.
- Be a model of resilience. Are you struggling? Have you made a mistake or failed at something? Share an appropriate experience with your child so she can see an example of perseverance and your personal “solutioning” methodology. Teach her learning happens at every age.
- Tone down the praise. While we think as parents that we’re building self-esteem with constant compliments, it can actually backfire. Children who are incessantly praised rely heavily on external validation for confidence, rather than having the self-esteem that comes from overcoming obstacles. For example, Instead of saying “good job,” focus on the specific action or activity, such as “You worked really hard on that science project. I like the way you constructed the solar system.”
- Pick your battles and use good judgment. If allowing your child to fail would result in injury or humiliation, it’s time to intervene.
If we expect children to be resilient in the face of adversity, we need to be teaching kids to fail responsibly, or rather, let them fail. With time, they’ll become adults who can overcome challenges, manage expectations and solve problems creatively.