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Is Failure the New Black in Parenting?

The problem with this whole "failure" thing.

We've been telling parents for a very long time now that failure is a good thing for a kid. Apparently, this hasn't worked, because we keep finding new ways of telling them this. Will it finally catch on?

Maybe it has. Waxing poetic about the virtues of failure has become the "go to" when we perceive a parent who is being intrusive in their child's life (what we all are now conditioned to call "helicopter parenting"). I imagine there are now scores of parents who are repeating to themselves ten times a day that failure is good for a kid. Maybe they visualize the hypothetical pathway between failure and success when it kills them to look at their kid's test and not see an "A." Maybe they click their heels together and say out loud "failure is a good thing" when they are dying inside wondering if their kid is really studying the heck out of that material and truly nailing that research paper (which they know they could improve themselves with just a wee bit of editing).

But there's a problem. We're all hypocrites. While we can say all this stuff about failure, we also live in a world where kids don't get to really embrace these life lessons because they get stuck with a permanent reminder that it's all nonsense. They get a grade.

Yep, they get this number or letter that tells them exactly where they stand. They get red marks - deductions - that shows them where they have come up short. So isn't that life? Isn't that how it works? You get beat up, and then you experience this extraordinary transformation because failure is such an awesome thing that builds your character and your work habits? Indeed, if this is the case, is a "B" just an okay learning experience, whereas a "D" is a really terrific thing, and the elusive "F" is the gold standard? Do we start to hang our kids' tests that are stamped with that red letter on our refrigerators to celebrate this precious experience?

This is nonsense. A grade tells you that you are done. Finished. Experience over. Sure, there are more tests to take, more projects to do, more papers to write. You can set goals, try to learn from your experience, figure out what you can do to improve next time. This is the special sauce of failure, right? And if it really happens this way, then yes, failure is a good thing. But if we as parents all "back off" and let kids roll around in their lesser accomplishments, how are they actually supposed to learn from these experiences?

Look, schools have to do their thing. Grades are going to happen (in the vast majority of schools). Ideally, grading should be a cumulative process where it's nothing more than a signal of where you are at and what you need to work on to get where you want to go. (It is duly noted that you can achieve this without actually assigning a grade and just giving good feedback along with goals for next steps). Sometimes that happens in the educational setting. More times than not it doesn't. Grades become the pressure cooker. You get a "C" on a test, you are now under the gun. You better get your act together or you are going to dig such a deep hole that you will never be able to get, gulp, an "A." And, as parents, if we just step out of the process - just let kids experience this magic of failure on their own - my guess is that we will all be walking around patting ourselves on the back for "letting go" while our kids get this strange brew of mixed messages about how it's super cool to fail and yet really important to nail that report card. The grade is blessing and curse meshed together unless we help them sort it out.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at
Source: Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

In a perfect world, kids would live in a daily environment where they really get to learn from experience. In Raising Can-Do Kids, entrepreneurs articulated the real benefit of this whole failure thing - you set a goal, you shoot for it, you come up short, you analyze what's going on, you make some changes, you shoot for it, you come up short. Sooner or later you figure out something that works, that 1 in 100 trials that pays off. In that world, failure doesn't exist. It's about trial and trial and trial informed by iterative experience. Entrepreneurs don't do cartwheels and throw parties when something bombs. They use the information gathered to alter what they do next. Wash, rinse, repeat.

So what do you do with this whole enterprise of failure if you are a parent? Stop doing your kid's homework and writing their papers, but don't back off. Start helping them learn to be strategic. Explain that the world isn't perfect and grades send a weird mixed message. Help your kid find the information in that message and work with them to strategize about what they can do differently. Be strong and firm if that different thing yields a similar result the next time. Find another new thing to try. Look for the smallest of victories. And when you and your kid find them, reinforce that this is the recipe for success, right now, and always.

And stop using the word "failure." It's just another "F" word. Replace it with the "E" word - experience - and back that up with real mentoring and support and encouragement. Then back off and let them begin to figure it all out, very gradually, day by day, year by year, for themselves.

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