Failing Forward: Make Every Mistake a New One

Failing forward

I sat in the school auditorium, surrounded by about 300 other parents. I was there to absorb the wisdom of a parenting author I highly respect, teaching us about the importance of letting go, of letting our kids make mistakes. It is a message I believe in quite strongly.

I figured I knew a lot about the topic, given that my child – about 12 years old at the time — was an EXPERT at making mistakes. So it never occurred to me that I would be so shaken by the talk being given that evening.

As I sat and listened to the author’s stories, and her answers to what seemed like simple questions from other parents, I began to shake my head. The tears started welling up. “She just doesn’t understand,” I thought. “It’s just not that simple to let this kid fail. She fails all the time, don’t you understand? Her self-esteem is on the line!”

Mainstream Parenting Wisdom Doesn’t Work

My child often felt worlds apart from so many of her peers, which tended to put a little distance between the parents of her classmates and me. This night was just another shining example of how, all too often, “mainstream” parenting wisdom just didn’t work for my child.

I gathered the confidence to ask a question, which was effectively, “what if your child has specials needs?” There, I’d said it, publicly. I’d used those words I’d never uttered before: special needs.

She paused for a moment, and then she looked straight at me and said, “Well, then, it’s different.” I don’t think I’d ever felt so validated in my parenting life. I honestly don’t know what else she said to me that night. Most importantly, she gave me the permission I needed to take a different approach with a child who saw the world through a very different lens from her peers.

For some parents – for us — the threshold for how much we have to do for our kids, for how much we need to scaffold and how much we can let them fail, is different than it is for parents of typical kids.

Sometimes it just breaks your heart to be a parent of a complex kid, doesn’t it? I mean, it can feel like torture, watching, waiting, hoping. This must be true in some way for all parents, but I think it resonates on a deeper level with parents of kids with ADHD, who “look typical” to the outside world.

Here’s the catch. Sometimes our kids – moreso than typical kids – have to fail before they can succeed. We want to protect them, but some failures may be the best thing in the long run. They are experiential learners. Sometimes they’ve just got to skin those proverbial knees.

Does that mean we should set them up for failure? Absolutely not. Rather, we walk a delicate line. We want to put failure into a framework – to teach our kids to fail forward into life. Failure, after all, is a fundamental part of learning. Yes, take that in.

Failure is fundamental to learning.

I often say to my clients that we don’t talk without babbling, and we don’t walk without stumbling. Scientific discovery is based on the principle of learning from failures, identifying what doesn’t work — without judgment — so that we can decipher what does work.

Well, that method tends to work well for kids with ADHD. If we’ve done all we can – if we’ve talked, supported, encouraged, offered structures, and identified motivations – and they are still failing, then it may be a lesson they have to learn the hard way. Sometimes, they aren’t going to “hear” the warning – they’re only going to learn by experiencing the results.

The TRICK is to be on their team when they fall, to help them brush of the dust (without judgment), learn from the experience, and discover how resilient they are!

Teaching our kids to Fail Forward is one of the most critical lessons we can teach them, because they are going to fail, and falter, and make mistakes. We want them to learn from them, rather than reinforcing their tendency to see themselves as stupid or otherwise flawed for making mistakes. Mistakes are human. They need our permission to be human.

This is not just an ADHD issue, of course. And there’s a lot more to it than just allowing failure. I heard an NPR report by Tovia Smith, “Does Teaching Kids To Get ‘Gritty’ Help Them Get Ahead?,” about a school in St. Louis that focuses on teaching kids to “be grittier.” To teach a child persistence, she explained, the school recognizes that it must help a child identify strengths, and believe that success is possible. In other words, it’s our job to set them up for success – and then be willing to let them fail in the context of their learning to succeed.

My husband always says, “Let every mistake be a new one.” Easier said than done in an ADHD Family of 5, but it’s a great message for the kids to hear, nonetheless.

At the end of the day, I think teaching our kids to handle failure with grace is one of the hardest parts of parenting ADHD. Sometimes it just breaks your heart. 


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