How to Allow Students to Fail

To follow up to my post from last week, here’s my two cents on how to allow students to fail to teach resiliency and grit, which ultimately correlate with how successful someone is.  There is an old Chinese proverb that says, “Failure is the mother of success.” History has certainly shown this to be true, think of all the successful people who originally faced enormous failures. But many times for parents, it is easier said than done, especially in the DC metro area where Type-A and success are a way of life. In discussing our cultural obsession with success, one education blogger, James Lehman, wrote, “Somehow in our culture, protecting your child from discomfort—and the pain of disappointment—has become associated with effective parenting. The idea seems to be that if your child suffers any discomfort or the normal pain associated with growing up, there’s something you’re not doing as a parent. Personally, I think that’s a dangerous trap parents fall into.”

In his article, Lehman, goes on to discuss the role of discomfort in achievement. After all, most students are uncomfortable going into school empty handed. They are uncomfortable having the teacher call them out. Lehman’s advice? Let them feel that discomfort, eventually they’ll get the wake-up call.

Our response to that is yes and no. Yes, it is okay to let your child go in without homework. Yes, it’s okay to tell your child you will not drive her to the store and stay up until 2 am with her. However, the research suggests that a discussion needs to take place after that discomfort and failure so that the student is able to learn from his or her mistakes. Additionally, if a child is putting in a ton of effort and not able to keep up, it should be brought to the teacher’s attention, as there may be an underlying issue at hand.

How to Let Your Kids Fail and How to Help Them Get Back Up

First things first, don’t hover. Allow your child to be responsible for his homework. This means not checking blackboard before he arrives home, mapping out his upcoming project, or tracking his grades on a daily basis. Secondly, have an honest conversation with your child about what will allow him to be successful. Try asking, “How many reminders do you need about that project,” if he says two, then remind him of the project twice and then take a back seat. Third, be present but not overbearing. If your child is doing homework, feel free to check in with him. Let him know you are available for help, but don’t sit with him watching his work. Fourth, try not to fixate on grades. While the above advice is often very difficult for parents, this step may be the hardest. But by putting an emphasis on the process of working hard on the project rather than the final grade, you encourage students for their hard work rather than the outcome. When you fixate only on the outcome, it no longer matters if the project was not completed until 2 am the night before.

Let’s go back to our initial situation. By allowing her to keep track of her own assignments, it puts the responsibility in her court. By using the advice above, you would have already given your daughter the three agreed upon reminders about the project. That voids her statement, “This is all your fault! You should have reminded me!” After reminding her, you would have offered your help. Had she chose not to use it, you can stand your ground that you offered to help her for the past month and a half, and she chose not to use your help. Finally, by not placing the value on grades and rather on the effort she put in, it’s okay to let her get the D, so long as you discuss the situation afterwards and she understands that the D was a result of the effort put into the project, not a reflection of her intelligence.

All too often, the parental instinct is to be a “lawnmower parent,” fearing that any exposure to failure will lead our children to an entirely failed life.  So instead, parents hover and try to avoid that failure for their children. But failure is inevitable, whether it be in elementary school, high school, college, or the work force. Thus, as parents the more important thing to give our children is not a failure-free life, but rather the skills necessary to deal with failure.