The Case for Letting Your Kids Fail


Michael Jordan, who some would consider to be the greatest basketball player of all time, was actually cut from his high-school team. He didn’t throw in the towel, however. “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career,” Jordan has famously said. “I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” 

Oprah Winfrey was born into poverty to a teenage, single mother. She faced considerable hardships and abuse during her childhood, became pregnant at age 14, and lost her baby shortly thereafter. She could have blamed the circumstances into which she was born and made choices reflective of those circumstances, but instead she worked to changed them. Now she is one of the most successful, wealthy, well-known women in the world.

The list of legends who had tough beginnings, like Jordan and Winfrey, goes on and on: J.K. Rowling, Jerry Seinfeld, Abraham Lincoln, The Beatles — even Walt Disney. They all experienced hardships, and/or were told they would never amount to anything. In short: they failed. But they didn’t let their early failures and rough starts deter them from pursuing their dreams and becoming wildly successful.

These people, along with several others who have similar stories, inspire me. They inspire me so much, in fact, that I made posters about them and hung them around my classroom in the hopes that their biographies would help motivate my middle-school students. As with my students, I try to impress upon my own children that failures are part of life. It’s how we respond to those failures that matters. Do we let them define us, or do we let them transform us? Do we give up, or do we work harder? Do we blame our failures on our circumstances, or do we strive to find a way to change those circumstances?

You can bet that behind each successful individual is another person who believed in them, cheered them on, and helped them dry their tears when they failed. As parents, we have that opportunity to bolster confidence and assuage fears for our own children each day. We get to teach our kids that failures are a part of life, and that we don’t have to let them be “bad things.” Failures can be wonderful tools that enable us to grow and motivate us to succeed.

Here’s how to help your kids cope with failure:

Make sure your kids know that it happens to everyone.

When your child fails at something, they may feel like “the only loser on the planet who can’t do it right.” No one is perfect. We all make mistakes, have setbacks, and simply fail from time to time. They aren’t alone.

Teach them to think of failure as a step toward achieving their goals rather than a bad thing.

On inventing the incandescent lamp, Thomas Edison said, “I have not failed; I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” Let your kids know that each time they fail, they are one step closer to success!

Help them to not take it personally.

Your child is up to bat, and he strikes out. He may feel like he’s useless. Remind him that he is not a failure. Sure, he struck out. You could say he failed at batting during this particular game, but he himself is not a failure. Separate the person from the setback.

Ensure that they learn from their failures.

Taking the earlier scenario about striking out at baseball, your son could go to the batting cages to practice before the next game, attend a batting clinic, or talk to the coach and get some pointers. Use the failure as a reason to learn and practice.

Help them to stay calm.

They can be upset about their failure. That’s normal. But encourage them to get over it and move on. Dwelling on the failure or getting super angry about it doesn’t help anything. In the case of really young kids, this might be tough to do. When your toddler is throwing a fit because he couldn’t zip his coat, you may just have to let him cry. When he settles down, cheerfully suggest trying it again.

Don’t try to prevent them from failing.

This is a tough one, parents. I know we want our kids to be successful. We don’t want to see them fail, and we tend to do whatever it takes to prevent them from having any kind of setback. In the long run, however, you’re doing them a disservice. Failure is a part of life. If you protect them from any kind of disappointment, how will they learn how to cope with hardship? How will they learn perseverance?

Support them in their efforts.

You don’t want to protect your kids from failure, but you do want to be there to support them when they do fail. Be their cheerleader. Encourage them to take stock, learn, and try again. Help them find the resources to improve. Give them the chance to go out there, pursue their dreams, and fail a little along the way.

Give them a break. 

Be understanding when they’re frustrated and don’t want to try again for a few days. It’s okay to step away for a bit. Sometimes stepping away and reevaluating the situation is a good thing. Just don’t let them give up altogether. At some point, you want to encourage them to get back on that proverbial horse.

Find the humor.

Laughter really is the best medicine. It releases so much stress and pressure to perform. Some of my biggest failures have brought me the biggest laughs. When you take the time to reframe your thinking, you can usually find something to giggle at, thus breaking all the tension.

Who knows? One day your child may just tell his interviewer: “My parents always believed in me and encouraged me to pursue my dreams. That is why I’m so successful.


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