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James Bailey Ph.D.
James Bailey Ph.D.

Teaching Children why Failure MUST be an Option

A child-based narrative perspective on the fear of fumbling.

Co-authored with Sophia Lohrum

“Failure is not an option” is a line immortalized in the movie “Apollo 13.” The maxim was the mission ethic of NASA engineers who fought to save the damaged Apollo 13 space capsule in 1970. The line has become so emblematic of persistence in the face of catastrophe that teenagers, professionals and leaders around the world often repeat it.

Based on its popularity, one might infer that society refuses to accept failure. Yet, if there is no opportunity for failure, then we as a society are unable to learn from our mistakes, and, ultimately, to recover and progress. Failure is an even more important ingredient for leaders. If society does not let us fail, then how are we able to grow as individuals and become better, more resilient leaders?

CCO Creative Commons
Source: CCO Creative Commons

Why isn’t Failure an Option?

Children are taught that failure is not acceptable. The roots of our intolerance for failure date back to the self-esteem movement, a term coined in the 1960s by psychologist Nathaniel Branden. At the time, Branden suggested that self-esteem was the key to a child’s success and encouraged parents to help their children to develop confidence to deal with life challenges.

Many parents interpreted the self-esteem message as an edict to protect their children from pain and adversity, at every turn, as this could have adverse repercussions on their future development. Well-meaning parents arranged for awards to be given frequently: participation trophies, completion awards, accomplishment stickers and verbal accolades. This belief drives teachers, in part, to avoid grading papers in red ink as this action may perpetuate negativity, which will impact a child’s self-confidence.

The children who grow up in this type of environment expect tributes for trivial accomplishments and have an inflated sense of themselves. To preserve their delicate egos, helicopter parents hover around their children to limit or bypass adversity, challenges or failures on their paths to the future (. By creating a no-failure bubble around their children, parents hope to avoid the painful consequences of letting them flop, get hurt or even fail.

CCO Creative Commons
Source: CCO Creative Commons

The pattern is repeated as young adults move back home after college with the so-called boomerang effect. Many of these adult children share a home with their parents because they are unsure how to move forward as an adult. In prior generations, moving back home was viewed as failure. Many current parents encourage the boomerang and welcome their adult children home, offering a comforting safety net for daily life.

These adults have been so bolstered by parental adoration they often are ill prepared for the workplace. Confident and entitled, they expect their managers to praise them for any and all efforts, either through glowing performance reviews or rewards. At this stage, they do not know how to accept failure. It is not in their vocabulary.

Failing as Leaders

Failure is a necessary part of becoming a leader, and it is problematic that this next generation has become allergic to failure because it will be a key factor on the road to success. Business theorist Chris Argyris wrote, “Many professionals… rarely experience failure. And because they have rarely failed, they have never learned how to learn from failure.”

When today’s young adults encounter a problem, they often behave defensively and blame everyone else. Contrast that with a leader who must be able to understand failure, deal effectively with the repercussions of it and calculate how to mitigate failure in the future.

By reacting defensively, many young adults are unable to process the cause behind failure, making it difficult to recognize their own role in a breakdown. They lack accountability for their actions, so they’re unable to find a path to achievement by taking blame and learning from mistakes.

Many young adults, who are unable to fail, lack flexibility to handle difficult situations. They have “brittle personalities,” and experience despondency when they do not achieve a high level of performance. This has echoes in their childhood in the form of tantrums and meltdowns. Helicopter parents defuse these situations through gifts or praise as a way to placate and silence their children. They grow up to form sensitive personalities and seek to shift blame to others. They never learn perseverance and accountability.

In many organizations, managers fear that giving negative feedback or poor performance reviews may spark defensiveness throughout the organization. Disapproval threatens self-image and confidence levels, but only for those adults who have had their egos artificially inflated since childhood. There is no room for the necessary feedback that results in personal and professional growth.

Understandably, there must be a balance between negative feedback and positive motivation. In psychologist Abraham Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs,” managers need to provide positive reinforcement in order to create a constructive environment to motivate employees. Still, constructive criticism has a place in the workplace to build respect and improve performance, and a good future leader should be able to accept even the most negative feedback with grace.

CCO Creative Commons
Source: CCO Creative Commons

Making Failure an Option

Many young adults today have not learned how to lead because they have not learned how to fail. The behavior of these early professionals is shaped in childhood by their environment and is reinforced through education and early professional life.

Failure needs to start being an option, and early on. If parents allow their children to fail, then the children learn how to overcome adversity and conquer anxiety. Experiencing failure will motivate the children to try harder. Parents need to teach accountability to their children. By gracefully accepting criticism, they learn to handle feedback at all stages of life. If not addressed, early and often, the lack of failure in our lives—and learning how to live confidently with its consequences—will stunt our growth as leaders.

Failure is an option. Perhaps the blockbuster movie can incorporate that line, as well.

Sophia Lohrum is a program manager at Fannie Mae, licensed CPA, and a graduate of the University of Virginia, and currently a MBA student at the George Washington School of Business.


Alsop, Ron. (2008, October 21). The ‘Trophy Kids’ Go to Work. Retrieved from:

Argyris, Chris. (2000). Teaching Smart People How to Learn. HBR On Point.

Davidson, Adam. (2014, June 20). It’s Official: The Boomerang Kids Won’t Leave. Retrieved from:…

Motivation, Leadership Perspectives and Practices I 30 September 2016, Lecture slides

Patty, Anna. (2010, April 3). Helicopter parents not doing enough to let children fail.…

Rock, David. (2012, March 5). Has Coddling an Entire Generation of Children Set Them Up for. Retrieved from:…

Yasa, Dilvin. (2014, September 22). Has the Self-Esteem Movement Failed Our Kids. Retrieved from…

About the Author
James Bailey Ph.D.

James R. Bailey, Ph.D., is a Professor of Leadership at the George Washington University School of Business.

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