Embracing Failure

Fall light streamed through my minivan windshield as I approached the carpool line, eager to hear about my first-grader’s day. But when she climbed into her booster seat, clambering past her two younger siblings in their carseats, her small face trembled with accusatory rage. “I didn’t get to check out a book at the school library,” she said. Why? “Because you forgot to put my last book in my backpack before school this morning.” 

I sat quietly, feeling a momentary swell of parental shame. That’s right–it was Library Day. I let out a breath. “I’m sorry, honey. That must have been hard. But remembering to return a library book is your responsibility.” 

Predictably, she didn’t agree, but I held my ground. With a new baby in the family, I simply couldn’t stay on top of her school library checkouts. So she had to, and over time, she did. With the help of a designated spot for library books in her room and handwritten reminder notes of Library Day, she remembered to put last week’s book into her backpack on the day it was due, her face beaming with hard-earned pride.  

While I felt guilty (Shouldn’t I find time for it all?), I unwittingly gave my child a gift. It’s a gift that’s gaining ground as a highly valued learning tool, and one you can’t find in stores: the gift of failure. 

What Failure Fosters
New research shows that childhood failures pave the way for a successful adulthood (If only I’d known this on Library Day). Simply put, failure teaches kids about perseverance, creativity, resilience, and motivation in ways that nothing else can, according to Jessica LaHey, New York Times bestselling author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.

Angela Duckworth, the University of Pennsylvania researcher who coined the term “grit,” says that kids who aren’t allowed to fail won’t develop perseverance (aka grit). This matters because grit is more strongly linked to success than I.Q., good looks, or physical health. Children who are protected from failure by a parent who swoops in for the rescue to, say, hand deliver a late homework assignment or demand that a teacher change a poor grade, wind up without the perseverance needed to succeed later on. 

Failure is so central to learning that Girl Scouts of America leads its PSA with a message about being “prepared to fall down, get back up and go for it.” Marianne Addy, Chief Marketing & Communications Officer of Girl Scouts Louisiana East, shares, “It seems in today’s world, that the fear of failing can stop a person from even trying. We’re so competitive that anything less than an A is unacceptable. That’s one of the areas where I think Girl Scouts has it right–we give girls a supportive space to take chances, try new things, and learn to succeed through failure.”

Though I didn’t know it at the time, the library book experience provided a near-ideal platform for early learning about failure. The stakes were relatively low; a couple of late fines for early readers wouldn’t keep my daughter out of college. Plus, she had weekly opportunities to repeat the experience, along with the lesson, because if she failed to remember her books one week, she could try again the next.

Like many of life’s lessons, failure’s learning value is enhanced by repetition, so allowing children to experience small failures, like forgetting a lunchbox or flubbing an assignment due date, sends the message that failures aren’t catastrophic, notes Kent Hoffman, psychotherapist and co-author of Raising a Secure Child. 

Kids can always try again. And for aspiring parents-turned-knights-in-shining-armor like myself, the message is even more simple. As LaHey of The Gift of Failure puts it: “Every rescue is a lesson lost.”

How Failure Boosts Motivation
When parents struggle to embrace failure as a natural part of learning, kids notice. Per Stanford researchers Kyla Haimovitz and Carol S. Dweck, it’s parents’ beliefs about failure that shape kids’ motivation to learn. Their 2016 study found that children could accurately determine whether their parents viewed failure as a setback or an opportunity, and these beliefs influenced kids’ intelligence mindsets, or their beliefs about their own potential for learning and growth. 

The researchers theorize that when parents focus on performance and ability–or the lack thereof–instead of learning, children will tend to believe that their own potential is limited, draining motivation to learn. That’s because children who view smarts as something you grow, instead of something you’re given, tend to approach obstacles more creatively. When one strategy doesn’t work, they will devise another strategy and try again. 

Emphasizing results over effort neatly sidesteps the (sometimes messy) process of creatively approaching a problem from different angles, subtracting the learning value from the equation, says LaHey. That’s why dangling carrots in the form of rewards or bribes is ineffective, and even counter-productive.

“Extrinsic motivators, or motivators that comes from outside, undermine motivation,” says LaHey. “Kids who are rewarded for creative activities produce less creative products, and are less invested in the endeavor.”

Children are resilient, and if you give them the opportunity to fail and learn from their failures, you will see just how resilient they are. Addy adds, “I strongly believe that embracing failure as a natural part of life (the adage ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again’) is necessary to ensure children develop the tenacity to overcome obstacles later in life. A child who can take challenges head-on will grow into an adult who is more successful in all endeavors.” ■

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