Giving Our Children the Gift of Failure

As a mom, I often say I would do “anything” for my kids–most women I know would say the same. We desperately want to provide our children with the things they need in order to be successful in life; we stay awake at night worrying that we haven’t done enough, that we are falling short as parents. Yet in our eagerness to help our children succeed, I wonder how many of us deny our children one of the things they need to prevail–the opportunity to fail. It may seem  counter-intuitive   but in order to develop into capable adults, our children must be resilient, and they cannot become resilient without learning to overcome failure.

I was casually skimming through my child’s latest school newsletter when a headline caught my eye: “Are we stealing from our children?” Intrigued, I read further. Our school’s guidance counselor noted, “Schools today face an epidemic of underachievers, yet these children believe with all of their hearts that they are incapable of doing the work asked of them…they have learned at an early age that adults will rescue them when the going gets tough.” As a teacher, I have seen this play out many times, from second graders who don’t know how to tie their shoes to fifth graders who look to me for reassurance after each individual math problem they do, fearful to continue in case they are ‘doing it wrong’.

As our counselor pointed out, children who struggle to perform at school may have similar problems at home, as they “begin to believe [their parents’] unstated message that they can succeed only with assistance.” Of course, as parents we do not set out to harm our children–quite the contrary, we want the best for them. Often parents who coddle children do so because they grew up with challenges themselves, learning to do without the things they wanted. Vowing that their children will not suffer the way they did, parents will work long hours to provide their children with everything that they didn’t have, and will do everything they can to shield their children from hardship, even if that means doing part of their homework for them, calling them in sick to school if they aren’t prepared for a test, and otherwise catering to their every want. I say want, not need, because most of the things we give our kids today are not basic necessities.

Image courtesy of Topgold


A few generations ago, things were drastically different. In the days of the Depression and in times of War, parents relied on children to be workers, helping to support the family. Children were expected to pitch in and help around the house and often to have jobs outside the home in order to keep food on the table and shoes on their feet. My own mother, one of eight children, started shoveling parking lots with her brother when she was just a girl, and took pride in being able to use her wages to bring home a rare delight-cheeseburgers from a local restaurant. Fifty years later, my own children look at a trip to the drive-through at McDonald’s as nothing special, just an easy way to grab dinner before a sports practice.

Though we often look at our children and think they are merely spoiled, or that they ‘have it good’ compared to our parents’ and grandparents’ generations, it goes beyond that. As I mentioned, children who are given everything haven’t learned to work for anything. This doesn’t just make them ‘lazy’; it sends an unstated message that they are not capable of doing more for themselves. Underachievers come to believe that failure is too painful; studies demonstrate that children denied the opportunity to struggle during their early years are at a higher risk for suicide later in life. They do not perceive themselves of being capable of solving problems, so they come to view life as unmanageable, failing to see a way to change or improve things.

So, how do we know if we are crossing the line from being an engaged, loving parent to fostering an unhealthy mindset in our children? According to therapist Dr. Laura JJ Dessauer, there are three key behaviors that contribute to this problem. First, being inflexible: “If we control our child’s schedule, their food choices, their clothing choices, or their playmates [we]…send a message loud and clear to [our] child that they are not responsible for their choices or decisions and someone else has all the power.” Second, using our child to meet our own needs: “If [we] are not fulfilling [ourselves] in other areas of life…[we] may default to living vicariously through [our] child…unconsciously teaching [our] child that their value comes from pleasing [us].” Third, by solving problems for our children: When we react to our children’s problems by jumping in and rescuing them, we are “taking control of their ability to solve the problems they are encountering”, which tells our children “they are not competent or responsible enough to figure out how to solve their problems and that someone else needs to do it for them.”

Photo courtesy of clogozm

It’s good for kids to have responsibilities at home. I definitely see a link between ‘rescue parenting’ and the generation of young people who continue to live with their parents, spending their evenings playing video games or Skyping with friends instead of learning to prepare a meal, fix a leaky faucet, or make a household budget. As G. Williams, a sociologist from New York, stated, “If these adult-children are hired, they are going to be a vast and immense hemorrhoid to the company and corporation”, subject to repeated unemployment due to their inability to make decisions for themselves or to stick with challenging tasks until they are completed. It’s not just about coddling our kids; our parenting now helps determine the kind of adults they will become in the future. A few weeks ago I came across a quote that really spoke to me: ‘Definition for Co-Dependency: You are working harder on someone else’s life than they are'. Of course this applies in many areas of our relationships, but it is definitely true of parenting. Call it co-dependency, call it helicopter parenting or being a Tiger Mom, call it giving your child everything you never had. Ultimately, it all boils down to the same thing. Our children will never develop the ability to persevere if we do not gift them with the opportunity to fail.