Letting Your Child Fail Can be the Hardest Thing to Do

furious boy

I grew up in a family where achievement and hard work were valued. I was a good student, a tenacious worker, and generally a get-it-done-really-well kind of person. SO when it comes to my kids and their “success” in life, I admit my tendency is to hold the bar pretty high.

I still remember the first time my son got a below average grade in a class. Actually it was an “F” – a mid-term mark — in of all things, “BAND CLASS!” Are you kidding me?

I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t understand it – I didn’t want to understand it. It was unacceptable for my son to get an F in band!

At the time, I was ready to go to bat and do ANYTHING to “fix it” and make it go away, to prevent this from becoming part of his permanent record. I was in search and destroy mode, determined to protect my son from this terrible threat to his future success.

When I was coached on it (yes I still get coached – every great coach has a coach!) I realized that like many things, my reaction actually had nothing to do with my son. It was about me. I was afraid.

I was convinced that an injustice had been done! I saw the situation as horrific, his potential future doors shutting before my eyes. Not only would he have a lower GPA for the rest of 6th grade, but he would be prevented from going to the college of his choice and have to settle on a lesser career. All because of a mid-term grade in an elective course in Middle School!

As I sit several years (and several below average grades) later, it seems a bit overboard. But I know that, at the same time, my reaction was pretty typical. I coach parents around this all the time. As parents, we want so much for our kids, to see them be successful in life — so much so that we often forget that the ultimate goal is their success, which is not something we are responsible for.

We also lose site of the fact that learning to succeed, for most mere mortals, means learning to learn from your mistakes. And that means that they’re going to make mistakes. Horrors!

How do we know when to push, and when to let our kids fail? It’s the most difficult question a parent faces.

Thoughts on How a Parent Can Help

So if you’re willing to accept that one key goal of parenting is to help your kids learn from their experiences, even if it means failing now and then, then here are some thoughts to guide you:

  1. Understand: If your child is struggling (or even failing), it’s critical to be willing to consider that it’s not because she’s lazy, or stupid, or unmotivated. Our kids have real neurobiological and learning issues that easily lead to struggles in school.
  2. Does it (really) matter: When you look closely, there is little consequence to letting our kids struggle and fail. Sometimes letting go of something can take the pressure off of both of you, and set the stage for putting more focus on the things that have real consequence in life. Not everything is an A priority.
  3. Do they (really) care: Most of our kids, particularly when they become teens, get this air of not caring which is sometimes real, but often a way of hiding a fear of failure and inability to achieve. Start by getting curious to see if you can uncover what they really want to happen. How do they really feel about the situation and what is possible? If this is more of a problem for you than it is for your child, it might be a good sign that it’s time to re-group .
  4. Re-check your expectations: Our kids often come gifted as well as complex. We think, “but she could go to Harvard and become a neuroscientist!” Yes she possibly could, but right now she is genuinely struggling to get a passing grade in 8th grade Lit. I would propose (as difficult as it sounds) that it is more important to help her with current struggles, and learn how to resolve them, than to focus on possible future doors closing.      

Focus on Skill Development

So what do you do? When our kids fail, it’s typically because they are lagging in one or more skill that requires executive function. Here are some common ones:

  • The skills of problem solving and initiation — that help them to figure out how to stop doing the things they most enjoy (video games and playtime), and focus on completing their assignments
  • The skills of working memory — that help them turn in assignments, do complex Algebra and write extended essays.
  • The skills of follow through and distraction management — that help them notice when assignments are given and how to stay on task and complete them.

Look at whatever struggles your kids are having, identify the lacking skills, and focus some support (from you or someone else) on helping them develop those skills. Don’t just help them complete assignments – focus on developing the skills. That’s what’s most important. That is ultimately what is going to support them the most on their future path.

To be clear, I’m not saying that you should let go of your dreams and visions for your child’s future. One of my teachers says, “hold the vision and let go of the details.”

We REALLY want most for our kids to be happy, successful, self-assured, accomplished… whatever is most important for you. We don’t really know (right now) what exactly will help them achieve that in THEIR future. And that can be incredibly frustrating.

So you must trust in whatever it is that you trust, and take the steps you can now with grace, and kindness (rather than crazy and triggered). Now is the time to support them toward what they most want, at a pace that most makes sense for their development and their current goals. The rest will come. Promise!

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