If you want to provoke a room full of high school parents, tell them: Let your kids fail more. And then teach them how to fail better.
Say what? You mean actually fail, like get an F? How will they get into college if I let them fail? They will be the only ones failing in our community! What will it do their self esteem? Every parent helps too much, that’s just part of what it means to parent today!
Reader, you too might be riled at this notion, but I assure you that I am no monster and neither are my colleagues who share this perspective. In fact, our love for your kids and our commitment to seeing them thrive parallels that of an aunt or uncle. Our work is to empower kids to be competent, independent and launched! Out of your house, finding their way, and financially stable. Bonus if they are doing work they love because they’ve been given the space to find their strengths and interests.
Seriously, what I want more than anything is for all kids to have equal access to the tools, mentors, and resources that would allow them to feel prepared for real life. And that means knowing how to fail better.
Unfortunately, one of the downsides of real life is that stuff doesn’t always work out. We don’t always nail it in all aspects of life simultaneously. Sometimes we make mistakes. Other times we screw up and still other times we experience epic failure.
If we are always fixing things for our kids, we don’t give them the chance to practice screwing up while the stakes are low. When they still live in our homes and they screw up, we can help them navigate the failure and learn for the next time.
But if we delay this opportunity for failure by intercepting every bad throw and saving the day, when they mess up, they don’t know how to dust themselves off and move on without internalizing shame and disappointment. And that icky stuff sticks around.
When the next chance arises that is an uncertainty and requires some bravery or risk, kids who have been sheltered from failure are less likely to try. Failing well is a skill that they haven’t practiced, and it’s a impediment to moving forward.
How to fail better
The next time time you are tempted to fix, pause. See if you can find a way to let them do things their way. Allow them chances for mistakes and failures. Let them not make the team because they chose not to practice after giving them many opportunities. Or allow them to get a C because they crammed the night before. It’s even okay if their science project looks like they did it themselves.
Depending on how you’re built, let them even screw up royally. (Please know that the exceptions are always when screwing up means messing with their safety and health.)
But then, show up for them without the suggestion of an “I told you so.” Ask them how they feel about their result. Call it a result or outcome, not a failure. Let them find the language to explain themselves and own their process. Do not even mention that they failed!
From there, open the conversation to how things can go differently (not better) next time. Or how they would advise someone else in their position. Brainstorm with them, problem solve together and let them build their agency, their own executive functioning, and their accountability.
And when they succeed on their own, even if it’s an 80 after a 75, acknowledge it. Praise them for their hard work. If it’s a big win, ask them if they did something differently. Don’t overdo it and don’t buy them anything. Just let them know that you see them trying and you’re proud of their courage to take risks and change behaviors that didn’t lead them where they wanted to go.
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