Let Them Fail, Mama

by Joelle Wisler
Originally Published: 
fear of failure
anatols / iStock

Failure. Ugh. The word even sounds terrible. I’m a recovering perfectionist, so during my lifetime, failure has not been my friend. I once pretended to run away from home in third grade because I got a C on a test. It wasn’t that my parents put pressure on me, my fear of failure just came from inside my own weird, failure-avoidant self. I had decided that if I failed then I must be unlovable, therefore I would go out into the wild and not subject my poor family to my imperfect self. A bit dramatic? Yes.

For years, I made myself sick prior to anything that held the slightest potential for failure, simply because I couldn’t bear the feeling of being bad at anything. I would be nauseous for days before and after tests, races, interviews, speeches, and dates. It was an exhausting and pointless way to live because of course I failed at things. I would fail and then I would beat myself up for it, and then, in turn, I would avoid things that proved to be too hard. Thanks to my fear of failure, I missed out on a lot and ended up in a career that I was good at, but not one that I was very excited about. I’m sure some of you out there can relate.

But then I had kids. I started reading books and blog posts about kids and I started the long — and arduous, painful, rewarding, beautiful — work of parenting kids. I began to learn what it takes to put forth a fairly successful human being into the world. And guess what? It appears that failure is a big part of this process. What?! Hold that perfectly polished door!

It’s true, and the premise is this: We simply cannot do everything for our kids. We cannot take away their bodily pain, their challenges with friends, their struggles with authority figures, their horrible decisions, or their jacked-up life paths on the way to their growing up. We may want to do these things, but we cannot. We must give them whatever we have and then let them flail and fail — again and again and again. That is when they learn to make better choices. That is when they can look at themselves in the mirror without the ever-present shadow of their parents looking back at them and telling them what to do and what not to do.

Sara Blakely has made a billion dollars — and earned my never-ending gratitude — by creating Spanx. She says in this video that her dad made a point of celebrating her failures at the dinner table. Her failures weren’t avoided or not talked about or criticized or internally pulverized — they were celebrated. If she couldn’t come up with a failure of the week, her dad told her that she simply wasn’t trying hard enough.

Go ahead and watch:

Business Insider: Spanx CEO On Failure” from Eleanor Rigby on Vimeo

I would love to say that I have achieved that place where I don’t care if I fail or not, but maybe that’s not even humanly possible. I still really like to do well at whatever I have set my mind to, and I have to push back on the negative self-talk when I do screw up royally. I remember all of my failures like a rotten tooth that I sometimes stick my tongue into at 3 o’clock in the morning.

I have achieved a place where I sit down with my kids and ask them about what their days’ joys and sorrows, and yes, failures. We talk about why they made the choices that they did and what they might do differently next time. We also talk about my day and the good and bad things I accomplished. We talk and talk until my kids are like, “For the love of God, stop talking about our failures. We’ll fail at something tomorrow, we promise.”

So please, for your kids’ sakes, let them go out and make good and bad choices and live with those consequences all on their own. Fear of failure has no place in their lives. When they’re self-made billionaires, they’ll thank you for it.

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