We Must Let Our Children Fail If We Want Them To Succeed

In trying to protect too much, kind people can inflict great cruelty.
-Eric Greitens

The quote above is from the Greitens’s book Resilience, which I’m in the process of reading.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to teach my children the best skills for success. I’ve long been a believer that while a parent’s job is to guide and help their children on their path, it’s not for us to make sure the path is without obstacles. We learn best through hard work, and by turning our mistakes and setbacks into well valued experience.

All too often today I see signs that people are treating their children like delicate dolls, rather than what they are, merely small adults. Parents refusing to let their children ride their bikes to their friends’ houses, or even worse, getting in trouble with the law for letting kids walk themselves home from school. Kids now receive trophies even when they place dead last in tournaments. But it doesn’t even stop at children or teenagers; in fact I recently read an article by none other than one of my favorite authors, Jonathan Haidt of The Righteous Mind, detailing how “In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like.”

Greitens hits this one square on, writing:

Not everyone gets a trophy, because not every performance merits celebration. If we want out children to have a shot at resilience, they must learn what failure means. If they don’t learn that lesson from loving parents and coaches and teachers, life will teach it to them in a far harsher way.

Some time ago, I read the book Raising Resilient Children, by Robert Brooks and Sam Goldstein. It made quite an impression on me, and has stuck with me ever since. The authors mainly focus on fostering a mindset of problem solving and creativity in children, so that they can navigate the inevitable bumps and bruises life will hand them. Ever since then, I’ve tried to always step back and let my children work themselves through things, rather than leap in and correct things as quickly as possible.

Is this hard? You bet. Any parent with any degree of compassion (and I’d hope most do) will find it downright painful to see their child struggle. Whether it be in school or when playing with friends, we always want to see our children happy. But truthfully, we do them more harm by making things easy and swatting things from their path, rather than teaching them the skills to handle it themselves.

When I was in college I remember seeing a fellow freshman student struggle mightily with the task of doing her own laundry. Had I not intervened, I think she would have readily poured bleach all over her (rather expensive looking) clothes. It made me think, “If she can’t even handle doing the laundry, how is she going to handle all the far more adverse challenges college life will contain?”

We may well have the best of intentions when we intervene constantly in our children’s lives. It’s only natural to want them to be content and enjoy life. But we must consider the long term consequences of our actions. Just as our muscles grow stronger only by stretching beyond comfort, so too must we expand our children’s resilience only through the occasional pain of failure.

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