Letting Your Child Fail
Find out how making mistakes builds self-confidence and resilience
From President Theodore Roosevelt to technology entrepreneur Elon Musk, successful role models have been telling us for over a century that we can learn from our mistakes. But modern society’s obsession with perfection is stifling this longheld wisdom. Today’s youth often compare themselves to the lives and images they see on their digital screens, which can increase their anxiety and self-doubt. Fortunately, parents can take an active role in normalizing mistakes, and transform failures into strengths.
Perfectionism vs. Resilience
Perfectionism is the opposite of resilience, says Andrew Hill, a professor of sociology at York Saint John University in the U.K., adding that it’s captured in “how unrealistic your standards are and how harshly you evaluate yourself.”
Hill has done extensive work chronicling the rise of perfectionism, and notes that perfectionists are highly sensitive to mistakes. They “will often avoid scenarios that are challenging due to a fear of failure,” he says.
Striving for perfectionism can be especially damaging to teens. “Having unrealistic standards and being extremely self-critical is going to make life tough for teenagers,” he says. “It is an important time for social and self-development. Perfectionism will make this time more difficult and stressful.”
Tara Egan, a psychologist, author and founder of Charlotte Parent Coaching, says perfectionism and resilience can be genetically determined. “You can see it as young as infancy,” she says. “Some babies are more fretful and rarely smile, and are more likely to grow into worriers, while others are more easygoing.”
At the same time, a child’s experiences also influence her traits as she develops. Stressors that sap resilience can include parent divorce, abuse, neglect and witnessing violence — any of which would have an even worse effect on a biologically sensitive child.
Nonetheless, Egan adds, kids with a high natural tendency toward perfectionism or worry can learn to be resilient — even those who are exposed to numerous stressors. Normalizing mistakes can go a long way toward helping children develop into confident and independent adults. Here are some tips for how to harness the benefits of making mistakes.
1. Provide Opportunities for Kids to Fail
“Kids learn best through experience,” says Rebekah Talley, a child therapist and owner of Zola Counseling in Charlotte. Allowing your child to take age-appropriate risks is the first step in strengthening his self-confidence.
So, is it safe to let your baby fall while he’s learning to walk, to allow your middle-grader to flunk a math assignment or to give your teenager permission go to a party hosted by someone you don’t know? The key is to differentiate between a situation in which your child is physically or emotionally uncomfortable, from one in which he is actually suffering.
Trust your instincts, Egan says. “Parents are naturally aware of that difference. Practice ‘uncomfortable.’ It’s fine to give reassurance and to coach them through a stressful moment,” she says. As long as the experience is age-appropriate and the child isn’t suffering or in physical danger, don’t take the stressor away completely.
2. Provide Opportunities for Kids to Reflect
The School of Education at UNC-Chapel Hill incorporates experiential learning into its master’s degree teacher preparation program via a weeklong Outward Bound wilderness trek, or a week of hard work and projects on the Hub Farm in Durham. Teachers in training are confronted with physical challenges, unfamiliar tasks, projects that require learning new skills, teamwork and innovation — along with plenty of frustration, uncertainty and failure.
“We want them to be uncomfortable, to take risks and make mistakes and learn,” says Suzanne Gulledge, a professor and program coordinator at the school. She says the experiences aim to make teachers empathetic to students who struggle with new concepts and skill development. Teachers learn ways to support students through struggles — not to remove those struggles. They are reminded of the kinds of anxieties that accompany learning new things and experiencing setbacks — and how good it feels to overcome a challenge.
Help your child reflect on her mistakes in this way so she can use those experiences as a point of reference. Ask her how she worked through the situation and what would help make it better next time.
With your toddler, this means allowing a mistake, then addressing her frustrations. “It’s a great opportunity to expand their emotional vocabulary,” Talley says. “By integrating discussion into their play, and by allowing them to grow and make mistakes and be supported and be encouraged, that helps them learn to regulate those emotions.”
With a slightly older child, focus on coping with loss and disappointment. If your child gets upset after losing a game, take the opportunity to help him learn that while disappointment is natural, he needs to find a way to calm himself and try again.
This is trickier with teens, since many of them are caught up in social and extracurricular lives outside of the house. Also, teens can feel self-protective of their shortcomings. Make sure your teen knows you are always available — either to talk, or to ask for a safe ride home if she needs one late at night.
3. Know the Difference Between Helping vs. Encouraging
Jennifer Lansford, Ph.D., a research professor at the Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy, advises that a parent’s goal should be to provide tools so his or her child is eventually self-sustaining. “Keep external factors in place until a child has enough resources to keep going on their own,” she suggests. In what she calls our “current hyperparenting climate,” the tendency for parents to provide constant care to older children has increased.
“Parents are spending more time than in the past in very direct teaching,” she says. “Kids are booked solid with extracurricular activities — from preschool to high school — and cellphones have made it possible for parents to be constantly checking in, even when a child has moved away to college.”
While this connectedness has positive aspects, Lansford worries that it isn’t conducive to a child’s healthy emotional development. Stepping in to make sure your child is always happy, or to ease your child’s path toward success, can have negative effects.
The worst case is when a child develops a sense of “learned helplessness,” says Kate Paquin, owner of A Family Coach in Apex. If a parent is always taking over in difficult times, then a child never gets the opportunity to try to solve problems on her own, which can decrease her confidence and put her at a disadvantage when she leaves home and needs to take care of herself.
Talley advises parents to self-reflect before solving a child’s problem, whether it’s fixing grammatical mistakes on an essay, or navigating a social challenge.
“Really explore the intent behind your action,” she says. “Ask yourself, am I doing this to make the day easier, is it for me? Do I have fears about letting my child struggle? Am I worried about the external appearance of my child’s failure and how that might reflect on me?”
If you’re helping your child to satisfy your own needs, take a step back and encourage, instead of help. First, let your child try her best. If she makes a mistake or isn’t successful, praise her effort and point out the connection between hard work and success.
Egan suggests that after validating your child’s emotions, you can either offer coping strategies, such as a hug and words of support, or problem-solving tactics, such as coming up with a plan for how to approach the issue differently next time.
For older children and teens, work on moving them from a fixed mindset (believing they are born with certain talents) to a growth mindset (believing they can improve with hard work) by praising effort rather than ability. (Learn more about this in our August 2019 Growing Up column.)
4. Evaluate Your Reaction
Often, a child’s attitude toward a mistake depends on how a parent responds to it. “If you remain calm and regulated, your child can usually get backup and solve the problem,” Talley says. On the other hand, if you are overly critical, your child will associate your judgment with her mistake.
Paquin offers an example: “If a child is rushing to eat their dinner and they choke and get scared, there will be some parents who will say, ‘See! That’s what happens when you rush!’” Paquin insists that you “cannot shame and expect acknowledgement and growth.”
Instead, respond with patience and empathy. Say, for example, “‘Oh no, I’m sorry you were choking. Is there a way we can prevent that from happening again?’” Asking your child for the solution teaches and empowers him or her at the same time.
5. Avoid Promoting Perfectionism
While it can be helpful to set high standards for your child, Hill warns that “perfectionism can be modeled and learned from parents, and it can also develop in response to parental expectations.”
The solution? “More positive relationships with parents based on unconditional acceptance will reduce its development and likely help reduce its negative effects,” Hill says.
6. Know Your Child
Since some children might be biologically inclined to perfectionism and anxiety, different children need different levels of encouragement and guidance as they learn to deal with mistakes.
Egan advises striving to understand your child, as well as differences among your children, if you have more than one. “You do not have to parent your kids the same,” she says. “Eliminate the word ‘fair’ from your household.”
7. Model Mistakes
Kids learn not only by doing, but also by watching. If you’re too embarrassed to admit a mistake, or you respond with anger or frustration, your child may absorb this and think mistakes are frightening, shameful acts to be denied or hidden. Instead, own your mistakes and work through them out loud.
“As soon as you’ve calmed down, you should talk about it,” Talley says. “Show that you’re working on it, and that you’re just as committed to stopping. Apologize and take responsibility.”
8. Don’t Ignore the Positives
Celebrate the pleasure your child experiences by learning from mistakes. Gulledge emphasizes that letting children work through their mistakes boosts self-satisfaction and confidence. “Having a failure or a frustration and then working through the problem and finding a solution — that just feels good.”
Caitlin Wheeler is a Parenting Media Association award-winning freelance writer who lives in Durham.