Why I want my kids to fail

There are few things more liberating in this life than having your worst fear realized… It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us.

Conan O’Brien – Dartmouth 2011 Commencement Address

It is strange that a comedian’s words would resonate with me so much, especially bringing to mind two recent child development books that I’ve read [1,2] and an episode of Penn & Teller’s Bullshit on self-esteem. But they are all windows into this same myth that plague’s many parents: that building a child’s self-esteem is your most critical job as a parent and to do so means sheltering your child from all forms of failure.

We see this insane focus on over-protecting our children’s self-esteem everywhere. Everyone at a tournament gets a trophy; kids are taught that everyone is a winner; and praise is heaped upon a child for every single accomplishment no matter how mundane. I hear principals say that every child is a genius. It is simply inadequate any more to say that everyone is a human being deserving of respect and love, and now we tell the lie that every child is remarkable in every way. However, kids are not stupid, and they know that when the word “genius” is used in this way, it simply becomes devoid of meaning anymore; it becomes cliché.

Somehow we have gone from “everyone needs to do their best”, to “everyone is the best”. And even more bizarrely, our children are told that the way to be the best is by never failing, or at least never admitting to it. These may not be words that are said directly, but they are the lessons learned. By focusing so much on the result and the accomplishments, rather than the effort, we reinforce in our children this conception that failure is to be avoided at all costs.

Research in child development has shown a couple of things in regards to this topic. First, it is not at all clear that there is a self-esteem crisis in our children nor that it is the root of most of their problems. If anything, this over focus on self-esteem has created a more narcissistic generation. Second, praise has been shown to have an inverse relationship to performance; the more you praise a child, the less they succeed.

The problem is that if we are constantly praised for our success, and not our effort, we start to tie up our identity and self-worth in the results. Failure, rather than becoming a lesson, becomes terrifying. If we are not the best or don’t always succeed, then it is something fundamentally wrong with who we are and our value as a person, or so we think. The fear of failure then becomes paralyzing in itself, and we miss the most important lessons in life, the hardest won: those of our failures.

The end effect is tragic. Being unable to overcome the fear of failure, we stop taking risks that would allow us to do truly great things. We take the safe path, and we never explore other areas of growth and opportunity that make us uncomfortable. Having Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) myself, I have struggled hard with perfectionism. My identity was wrapped up in my perceived intelligence and specifically my mathematical abilities. Getting a 4.0 in 3 college degrees was not enough. It was not enough to have all A’s but I had to beat everyone else’s A in my classes to be satisfied. Most people look at my college career and naturally think that I took the hard path, but in reality it was the easy path. It’s not that I didn’t work hard or challenge myself in those classes. Math was the easy choice because it is where I knew I could succeed. I avoided general education and non-science/math courses as much as possible because it threatened my GPA. I was afraid of failure. As interested as I was in history, philosophy and other subjects, I never took more of those courses than required. I took my easy path. And as I look back on life, I see I have done that far too many times and missed many opportunities. Just now, in my mid-thirties, am I beginning to overcome the fear of failure.

So do I want my kids to be failures; of course not. However, to truly succeed and excel in life, you must have failures as well. I do not want to rob my children of the lessons that failure teaches or allow the fear of it to close doors of opportunity for them. Using these lessons of science and my own past failure to accept failure, I will teach my kids a new way. I will praise the effort, regardless of the outcomes. I will not sugarcoat their failures and mistakes, but instead I will make them face their failures head on and help them through it. I will not let them always take the easy or comfortable path. And in the end, I will help them to succeed at life by learning to fall gracefully along the way.

  1. Bronson, P., & Merryman, A. (2009). Nurtureshock: new thinking about children.
  2. Mercer, Jean A., A. (2009). Child Development: Myths and Misunderstandings.

6 Responses to Why I want my kids to fail

  1. Julia says:

    This reminds me of an article I read recently that had been linked to from another blog I read: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/07/how-to-land-your-kid-in-therapy/8555/1/

    When we lived in the city my daughter was in the gradeschool gifted program and I saw a slight variation on this theme from parents in that program. The “You are a genius and failure is not an option – geniuses never fail”. I’m lucky that I had what my parents used to tell me to fall back on (because both my brother and I are technically “geniuses” I guess) – “You were born with a brain that makes some subjects easier and that is a gift that you had nothing to do with receiving. But you still need to put effort into your studies and not just do the easy ones, otherwise you will miss out on other wonderful things to learn. What is really important is that you try – not that you always succeed.”

    My husbands parents were the opposite and did the “you are a genius and can never fail” so I think it helps him too to get to change the pattern and raise our daughter to value effort and good intentions above results.

    Oh – and I’m actually quite relieved to live in our new rural area where there is no gifted program at our neighborhood school. We decided that our daughter can be challenged at home if need be and we can talk to her teachers if she gets too bored. But the social aspect of being in a more laid back elementary environment seems to have outweighed any possible boredom. She’ll have plenty of opportunities for AP classes in junior high.

  2. SkeptVet says:

    I love this blog, and I recommend it regularly, so I’ll apologize in advance for a comment which emphasizes a point of disagreement when I generally fail to comment positively on the majority of the content. :-)

    While I agree that the mania over encouraging self-esteem, and blaming the lack of it for any perceived problem in children’s behavior or academic performance, is mostly based on myth, I have to say I am also a bit skeptical of what might be called the “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” backlash idea.

    We all construct narratives to make our life histories seem coherent and in some sense logically directed to the point at which we are now. Part of this includes seeing meaning and purpose in bad experiences. For theists, this can take the form of saying bad things were “meant” to happen and ultimately led to a greater good. However, I think non-theists make similar narrative adjustments to the past, including seeing “failures” and somehow having strengthened our character. Given that there is strong evidence for an overwhelmingly genetic basis to temperment (~70% heritability on various standardized assessment instruments), I am skeptical that our character is or even can be meaningfully altered by such experiences.

    Perhaps surviving failure builds resiliency to some extent, or perhaps people who are naturally resilient interpret their failures in this positive way. I know people who are clearly not very resilient who interpret their failures as the reason for all their subsequent problems. Perhaps this is just a different way of interpreting the same event to fit a different narrative, which is dictated more by temperment than experiences?

    As a parent, of course I agonize over how to shape the optimal growth experiences for my child. But I also have deep doubts that as parents we have anything like the power over our children’s ultimate experience of life that we think we do. Beyond providing a sufficient physical, emotional, and social environment that doesn’t impede their development and provides opportunities for them to engage their innate traits, I think we have less influence than we believe.

    I was part of a generation fo “latch-key” kids who were supposed to be emotionally and socially ruined by too little nurturing and supervision, single working parents, “broken” homes and all that. And we seem to have turned out not much better or worse than any previous generation. Every generation frets about contemporary rearing practices and you can always find predictions of terrible outcomes. And every generation, on the whole, turns out about as functional, or dysfunctional, as those before it. So while the extremes of cosseting one’s children to the point of utter helplessness and “tiger parenting” to the point of sucking all the joy out of childhood are clearly both inappropriate, I think the acceptable middle ground is enormous.

    It is easy to exaggerate and judge the parenting practices of other parents or the perceived zeitgeist of parenting theory, but I suspect strong statements about the risks or benefits of particular approaches for all, or even most children, are rarely justified. I have a hard time believing the obsession with self-esteem and protecting children, which seems to be largely a function of the of affluent, middle-aged parents becoming more common, is likley to create a generation much better or worse off than those before it.

    • slagell says:

      I’m not sure that there is anything contradictory in what you and I are saying, besides my obviously hyperbolic article title. I think I largely agree with your comment.

      • SkeptVet says:

        I suspect you’re right. Differences in emphasis can masquerade as substantive differences, especially in a text-on;y medium. Thanks for the article!

  3. Thanks for this reminder to focus on effort, rather than end product for our children. As the mom of a special needs kid, I’ve struggled with my expectations of what my son may and may not achieve in life. At birth, we imagine the world for our children. We may even envision them fulfilling the dreams we never pursued, accepting the challenges we never could, or taking the risks we avoided. We’re so caught up in the promise of our perfect child, we may miss the fabulous everyday wonder of the baby or toddler right in front of us.

    In the early years, we may worry about them missing the opportunity to achieve greatness in a particular activity, signing them up for Suzuki violin lessons or baby gymnastics classes. Never mind that they prefer the garbage man to the symphony. Never mind that the Gymboree parachute makes them scream and they can’t yet tap their rhythm sticks on the beat.

    Every year is a new struggle with my son. Forget becoming President; will he ever be able to manage a transition without a battle? Forget Ambassador to Russia; will he be able to put two words together before age three, like his neurotypical peers? Forget traveling the world with a backpack and a Eurail Pass; will he be able to survive a week at sleepaway camp?

    My expectations for my son have evolved over the years, and they are still high, but my life improved dramatically when I released him from fulfilling my version of success, and began accepting him for the amazing, challenging, frustrating, funny, bright kid he was born to be.

    Heidi Emberling, MA

  4. [...] recently commented on a post from Science-Based Parenting on allowing our kids to “Fail,” in order to build resiliency and, believe it or not, [...]

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