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How Allowing Children to Fail Helps Them Succeed

7 Secrets to Children’s Success

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Most parents today are attempting to raise “star” children in one area or another be it sports, the arts or academics. This parental desire to see their offspring shine leaves little room for children to make their own mistakes and learn from them.

Parents commandeer their children’s development by over-parenting and being overprotective. Helicopter parenting is epidemic and begins when children are very young. Yes, we all want our children to succeed, but at what cost to them?

In striving for excellence, we go to great lengths to make sure our children don’t fall behind or fail. Wanting for them in this way actually hurts them and may explain why parenting at times feels more like work than enjoyment.

By not allowing children to falter or experience disappointment, you render them helpless—the precise opposite of what most parents hope to achieve. In her book, The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, Jessica Lahey, a teacher and writer for the Atlantic and the New York Times, writes, “today’s overprotective, failure avoidant parenting style has undermined the competence, independence, and academic potential of an entire generation.” I totally agree.

When Frank Bruni wrote a Times Op-Ed column, “How to Survive the College Admissions Madness,” about getting into college, a freshman at DePaul University responded: “Throughout my years of schooling, there was seemingly one goal: college. I was conditioned to fear failure, as it might keep me from my dream school. Each slip-up, missed homework assignment and absence kept me one step further from the goal.”

Inculcating a fear of failure occurs when parents step in all arenas and at all ages from toddlerhood and throughout high school. They insert themselves into activities best left for children to figure out for themselves: Too many parents yell instructions from the sidelines at sporting events; they help too much with homework; they question teachers about grades; they interfere in children’s friendship problems... In The Gift of Failure, Lahey addresses these problematic and other sensitive areas and advises parents on ways to help their children learn to be resilient, motivated, and to make good decisions for themselves after making a bad one.

In contrast, helicopter parenting removes children's decision-making powers and the ability to learn how to rebound and persevere. In other words, we are squashing their ability to be able to bounce back from disappointment or errors, to have resilience, a trait Jessica Lahey sees as essential for succeeding.

Most adults realize “that failing is common, no matter how hard you try,” a reality that Carlin Flora reminds us of in her recent Psychology Today cover story. She goes on to note that “failure is brutal, ugly, and unpleasant.” This is true for children in many situations too--situations parents in their helicopter, star-seeking mode find difficult, if not impossible, to witness when it affects their children.

Courtesy of HarperCollins
Source: Courtesy of HarperCollins

Lahey makes a strong case for why parents need to step back, let go and allow children to fail. She presents her advice from the point of view of not only as a parent, but also as a teacher who has witnessed all manner of parental interference. I asked her to cull key advice and suggestions from her book to help parents get started implementing a more effective parenting model, one that will benefit the children you are raising now:

  1. Failure helps children learn about themselves…and they will recover.
  2. Be patient and trust in your kids.
  3. Remember that when we say “Let me do that for you,” we are telling our kids we don’t think they are capable.
  4. Let kids make mistakes that test their abilities. This is a good thing that will strengthen learning and teach them how to be resilient.
  5. Remember that intelligence is malleable. The harder kids work to overcome challenges, the smarter they become.
  6. The children of parents who support autonomy are more competent and resilient in the face of frustration, so give kids space to work through temporary setbacks.
  7. Kids who pursue their own goals are far more likely to meet those goals and stick with activities for the long haul.


Curbing Too-High Hopes for Children’s Success

When Does Mothering Become Smothering?

Raising “Star” Children: The Pressure May Be Too Great: China sends a strong message to all parents.

How Parents Miss the Point of Report Cards: Turn report cards—good or bad--to your child’s advantage.


Bruni, Frank. “How to Survive the College Admissions Madness.” The New York Times, March 13, 2015.

Flora, Carlin. “The Tortoise & the Hype: It’s time to challenge the cult of ‘success-via-failure.’” Psychology Today: July/August, 2015.

Lahey, Jessica. The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed. New York: Harper, 2015.

Copyright @2015 Susan Newman

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