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Embracing Failure

Late-fall light streamed through my minivan windshield as I approached the school pick-up line, eager to hear about my first-grader’s day. But when she climbed into her booster seat, clambering past her two younger siblings in their car seats, her small face trembled with accusatory rage. “I didn’t get to check out a book at the school library because you forgot to put my last book in my backpack this morning,” she said. I sat quietly, feeling a momentary swell of parental shame. That’s right - it was library day. I let out a breath. “I’m sorry, honey. That must have been hard. But remembering to return a library book is your responsibility.”

Predictably, she didn’t agree. But I held my ground: With a new baby in the family, I couldn’t stay on top of my ever-expanding list of responsibilities and her school library checkouts; she had to. And over time, she did. With the help of a designated spot for library books in her room and hand-written reminder notes, she remembered to throw last week’s book into her backpack on due day, her face beaming with hard-earned pride. 

Still, I felt guilty about letting her fail to turn library books in on time, week after week. But I unwittingly gave my child a gift, one that’s gaining ground as a highly-valued learning tool and can’t be found in stores: the prize of failure.

What failure fosters

Research shows that childhood failures pave the way for a successful adulthood. Simply put, failure teaches kids about perseverance, creativity, resilience, and motivation in ways that nothing else can, says Jessica Lahey, New York Times bestselling author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go so Their Children can Succeed.

According to Angela Duckworth, University of Pennsylvania researcher who coined the term “grit,” kids who aren’t allowed to fail won’t develop perseverance, or grit, a trait more strongly linked to success than I.Q., good looks, or physical health. Kids who are protected from failure by a parent who swoops in to rescue them (say, hand-delivering a late homework assignment or demanding that a teacher change a poor grade), wind up without the perseverance needed to succeed later on.

Though I didn’t know it at the time, the library book experience provided a near-ideal platform for early learning about failure: The stakes were relatively low - a couple of late fines for early-readers wouldn’t keep her out of university. Plus, she had weekly opportunities to repeat the experience, along with the lesson, because if she failed to remember her books one week, she could try again the next.

Like many of life’s lessons, failure’s learning value is enhanced by repetition, so allowing children to experience small failures, like forgetting a lunchbox or flubbing an assignment due date, sends the message that failures aren’t catastrophic, notes psychotherapist Kent Hoffman, co-author of Raising a Secure Child: How Circle of Security Parenting Can Help Nurture Your Child’s Attachment, Emotional Resilience, and Freedom to Explore. Kids can always try again. 

“Every rescue is a lesson lost,” says Lahey.

How failure boosts motivation

When parents struggle to embrace failure as a natural part of learning, kids notice. Per Stanford researchers Kyla Haimovitz and Carol S. Dweck, it’s parents’ beliefs about failure - not their views about intelligence - that shape kids’ motivation to learn. Their 2016 study found that children could accurately determine whether their parents viewed failure as a setback or an opportunity, and these beliefs influenced kids’ intelligence mindsets, or their beliefs about their own potential for learning and growth.

The researchers theorize that when parents focus on performance and ability - or the lack thereof - instead of learning, children will tend to believe their own potential is limited, draining motivation to learn. That’s because children who view smarts as something you grow, instead of something you’re given, tend to approach obstacles more creatively; when one strategy doesn’t work, they’ll devise another and try again.

Emphasizing results over effort neatly sidesteps the (sometimes messy) process of creatively approaching a problem from different angles, subtracting the learning value from the equation, says Lahey. That’s why dangling carrots in the form of rewards or bribes is ineffective, and even counterproductive.

“Extrinsic motivators, or motivators that come from outside, undermine motivation,” says Lahey. “Kids who are rewarded for creative activities produce fewer creative products and are less invested in the endeavor.”

Raising resilient, motivated kids who bounce back from failure isn’t easy, but it’s possible, with these expert strategies:

Check yourself. In order to let kids fail, parents may first need to get over their own fear of being judged, says Susan Smith Kuczmarski, Ed.D., author of Becoming a Happy Family: Pathways to the Family Soul. Yes, you might be the parent who sends a coatless child to school on a cold day, but your child’s long-term emotional resilience is worth a few disapproving glances (and your child will likely remember their coat next time).

Acknowledge your own failures. When parents strive for perfection themselves, children pick up on their anxiety, says Hoffman. “Establish a rule of thumb that when mistakes happen - yours of your child’s - you’ll learn from the mistakes and move on.”

Prioritize connection. When you show kids that mistakes are okay, they learn that they don’t live on a flat world; even if they fail, there’s no way to fall off, says Hoffman. After a slip-up (yours or theirs), prioritize reconnecting and repairing the relationship. “The more our children can trust in our commitment to them, the more they can trust that mistakes are part of being loved.”

Emphasize effort. Encourage motivation and creativity by breaking out of the habit of rewarding results. Instead of saying to your child, “No screen time until you’ve fixed the mistakes on that worksheet,” try, “Give that homework your best effort for 45 minutes, and then we’ll take a break.” 

Think big picture. Parenting is a long-haul job. “Stop being so stressed out and anxious about this homework assignment, this soccer game,” says Lahey. “Sometimes difficult decisions about approaching failure are easier if you think in terms of long-term goals of competence and learning.”

Malia is a nationally-published journalist. 




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