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Letting our kids fail

I learned the other day that my son is afraid of failing and has a need to be perfect. Does this sound familiar to you? It was not familiar to me until I realized that the reason my eight year old son did not want to write for the classroom paper was because he was afraid that he “would not do it right." I became very worried and did not understand why my son was saying this when he has succeeded at everything that he has attempted in his life. Then after speaking about this with my husband, I realized that the reason he was afraid of failing at the newspaper was because this was something that he had never attempted before and he was unsure of his capability to perform the task of writing the sports column.

After dinner one night, my husband and I sat down with my son and openly discussed his fear of "failing." He began to cry and kept saying, "I just don't want to do it Mom and Dad. I don't know if I will be good at it." We responded by saying (1) “You won't know if you don't try;” and (2) “No one is perfect in life. We all have taken risks and have failed at things. What matters the most is that you try your best. “We also told him that whether he succeeds or fails, we always will love him.

What I was most curious about, however, was why my son was so afraid to try to write a column for the paper? So I asked him how this was different from the first time he played football. He said, "Mom, that was easy for me and I did not have to try so hard." The light bulb finally went off in my head and I thought, "My son is unsure of his ability to take new risks where he is not 100 percent sure of the outcome.” This made complete sense to me because even as adults, we do not take risks on certain tasks because we are afraid that we will fail and that will lower our self esteem. I always find it fascinating how similar children and adults are. My son is afraid that if he failsit will mean that he is not good enough. It gave me an opportunity to explain to him that failing at something can make us stronger and motivate us to work harder. He was not buying my “psychobabble” at first. I didn't blame him either - after all he is eight years old. Then I suggested, “Why don't you just try it and see if you are good at it, like you did with football?” My son did not answer me at first but then said, “Okay, I'll try it if you help me.” I said, “Absolutely!”

It is important that children fail at something in their lives so that they can understand the concept of building resilience. If they are not given the opportunity to fail as much as they are to succeed, then they will never be able to manage the rejection we all experience as throughout life. I have always been a believer that self determination leads a person to overcome rejection. I have tried to instill this in my children. It's like the old saying, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again." That saying has helped me to achieve most of my dreams. Kids should be encouraged to learn from their mistakes, not bail out because of them.
Lahey (2013) in her Atlantic article entitled, "Why parents need to let their children fail," interviewed teachers about failing. Lahey reports that one teacher states "I have worked with quite a number of parents who are so overprotective of their children that the children do not learn to take responsibility (and the natural consequences) of their actions. The children may develop a sense of entitlement and the parents then find it difficult to work with the school in a trusting, cooperative and solution focused manner, which would benefit both child and school.”

Year after year, my "best" students -- the ones who are happiest and most successful in their lives -- are the students who were allowed to fail, held accountable for missteps, and challenged to be the best people they could be in the face of their mistakes. "

So, the lesson to take away from my column this month is that failing is a natural part of life and one that we cannot always defend our children against. Remember when they fail, they actually learn to succeed.

Dr. Sue
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