For kids, failure is a critical ingredient in success

TheGiftOfFailureFailure is a critical ingredient in success, especially for kids. If that statement seems counter-intuitive or even contradictory, it’s time for you to check out Jessica Lahey’s wonderful book, The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.

The Gift of Failure focuses on the benefits of letting kids make mistakes. Lahey starts with a brief overview of “how failure became a dirty word” in parenting, and why making your kids dependent on you is a really bad idea. Then she dives in to the nitty-gritty, how-to of raising successful kids. Each chapter emphasizes how failure promotes success in every area of a kid’s life, from household duties (she recommends ditching the word “chores”) to sports, homework, and friendships.

Parenting for Autonomy and Competence

Like the experienced school teacher she is, Lahey breaks her lessons down into easy-to-understand ideas, and includes concrete examples, and detailed advice for parents of kids from pre-school through high school. (If only she had been one of my teachers in middle school!) For me, the most eye-opening chapter–the one I kept reading aloud to my husband until he escaped to another room to finish reading his own book–was Chapter 3, “Less Really Is More: Parenting for Autonomy and Competence.”

Lahey assumes that if you’re an American parent in the 21st century, you probably need a bit of help stepping back and giving your kids more autonomy. (If so, you’re in good company). She starts by laying out some of the behaviors that define controlling versus autonomy-supporting parents. You may be surprised to find where some of your standard procedures fall. (Even this “free-range” mom recognized herself in some of the controlling practices). Thankfully, Lahey spends the rest of the chapter giving general suggestions for shifting to autonomy-supporting behaviors. The second half of the book dives deeper into specific areas, with advice on how to support kids’ autonomy and learning in school, friendships, etc.

Whose Life is it Anyway?

While the book talks about all the good reasons that parents should let their kids fail, there’s another lesson lurking within Lahey’s book: for kids to succeed, parents must stop linking their child’s success in school, sports, etc. to their own (the adult’s) need to feel like successful parents. Lahey is sympathetic to parents who are guilty of this, and confesses that she had to come to grips with this tendency herself:

I had to stop equating the act of doing things for my children…with good parenting. It still feels good to do things for them, and I still do–all the time. But the things I do for them are different now, and my motivations are based on an evaluation of their needs, not mine. Before I was doing things they could do for themselves to feel good about my parenting.

Boom. Before hovering over the homework or insisting on another hour of clarinet practice, parents need to stop and ask themselves who really benefits when they do all the work. Are you hovering because that’s what’s best for your darling, or because it makes you feel like a winner as a parent?

It’s an important distinction–as Lahey makes clear in her book, the kids whose lives are micromanaged lose out in the end. Their intrinsic motivation dies, as does the pleasure that comes from owning their achievements. And of course when everything is done for a child, he never develops competency in basic life skills. Whether it’s sorting the laundry, resolving conflicts with “mean” kids, or writing a college essay, at some point your kids are going to have to do for themselves. When, if not during childhood, the time when they’re supposed to be learning life’s most important lessons?

What do you think: should kids be “allowed” to fail? What about when grades, championships, and college acceptances are on the line? Were you allowed to fail as a kids? If so, or not, how has your parents’ attitude affected your success and confidence as an adult? Let us know, in the comments below!  


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Danielle Meitiv is a scientist, writer, and mother of kids who roam. She loves to talk about kids, parenting, and society on Facebook and Twitter. She’s a passionate and experienced public speaker, and is represented by Louise Fury of the Bent Agency.


One thought on “For kids, failure is a critical ingredient in success

  1. I agree with this 100%. I just talked to a mom friend of mine whose kids are grown, and who have a terrible time coping with life. She explained it during a late night chat in a single sentence: “It was my job to make sure that my kids were never pushed farther than they were comfortable with.”

    I was so shocked I stared at her for a minute. But… But… What about raising the bar and then lifting the child up to meet it?

    We agreed to disagree. And I’ve been terribly sad for her children ever since.

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