The bright side of blunders: Why we should let kids fail

We’ve all heard it before: Don’t cry over spilled milk. So why, when our 6-year-old accidentally empties a carton of it onto the carpet, do we want to do just that?

Other than the obvious reason, involving carpet cleaner and half an hour of our time, we parents love to see our kids succeed in all they do, whether they’re learning to pour, writing a book report or competing at the state championship track meet. So we hover, prod, remind and rescue them, shoving aside any obstacle in the name of preparing them for a better future.

But do we do them a disservice in the meantime?

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In fact, many of us parents are overly invested in our children’s success, sacrificing the long-term lessons for the short-term achievements. When we keep our kids from failure, we rob from them the opportunity to learn from their mistakes, to develop resilience and the ability to bounce back, to feel confident taking risks and to face their problems with strength and courage.

What’s more, according to child and adolescent psychologist, Dr. Jennifer Hartstein, we lead them to believe that everyone wins, or that things always work out — neither of which is true. She adds that instead of facing obstacles with creative solutions, regularly rescued kids learn to avoid them, which can increase anxiety and depression when they have to rely on themselves down the road. The positive lessons failures teach us can take a childhood, or even a lifetime, to learn — which is why it’s important to start early.

However, you can teach your child that “fail” doesn’t mean he’s a “failure.” Instead, every mistake is a chance to learn — and prepare for even bigger decisions down the road. These strategies will get you off to a great start:

1. Be a refuge for risks. Encourage risk-taking as a core family value by letting your kids know, in word and deed, that, “In our family, we take risks,” and, “In our family, we make mistakes and keep trying.” Your kids will feel more comfortable with new challenges, like registering for AP History or auditioning for the school musical, and you will too — in fact, this could be the time to sign up for the indoor soccer league you’ve always wanted to try!

2. Make room for mistakes. Let it be known that failure is an expectation when we try something new. Whether your child is learning to make a sandwich, ride a skateboard or speak a new language, help her understand that slip-ups are the norm. Say, “Great, that gives you the chance to learn to do it differently next time!”

3. Highlight the lows. Introduce your kids to the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Walt Disney, Steve Jobs and Michael Jordan in a way they’ve never seen them before: through their failures. Emphasize the fact that even people who are very successful have to negotiate their share of obstacles. You can make it more personal by sharing some of your own setbacks, and talk about how you bounced back even better than before.

4. Discuss “do-overs.” When your kids do fail — and they will — empathize, but don’t rescue. Say, “That must have been really difficult for you!” Then add, “Knowing what you know now, what would you do differently next time?” Helping them think through their mistakes will enable them to create a better outcome down the road.

One of the hardest places to let our kids fail is at school, and yet it’s one of the most important places for them to take charge of their own success. When students learn how to manage their own academics, they’ll set themselves up well for the future, but letting kids “sink or swim” can be terrifying — for parents! But don’t worry: even while handing over the reins, you can bolster your child’s efforts by offering the right kind of support.

First, set the expectation that school performance is your kids’ responsibility, not yours. Then, teach them to recognize the signs of struggling, and help them think of ways to get more help if they need it — such as visiting a homework help center after class or studying for a test with a friend. While it’s their job to talk to the teacher if they have issues with grades or decisions, you can help them prepare by role-playing the scenario ahead of time. If your kids do poorly, allow them to experience the consequences — the fallout will teach them more than any pop spelling quiz ever could. Encourage them to develop a plan to improve their grades, but keep the responsibility for the effort in their hands. While their school careers will have ups and downs, they can be proud of the fact that it’s their grades getting them into the college they’ve dreamed of — not yours. And if they aren’t accepted? There’s a lesson in that, too.

While we will always want the best for our children, we can’t protect them forever. They’ll deal with disappointment and failure their whole lives — so teaching them to negotiate these tough experiences early on will ultimately set them up to make good decisions when it really matters. They’ll be able to confidently guide their own future — and isn’t that the true meaning of success?

TODAY Moms contributor Amy McCready is the Founder of Positive Parenting Solutions and the author of If I Have to Tell You One More Time…The Revolutionary Program That Gets Your Kids to Listen Without Nagging, Reminding or Yelling. Follow Amy on Twitter @AmyMcCreadyPPS.