Hard Lessons

Why I Let My Kids Fail

You don’t learn if somebody else is always swooping in to save you.

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My daughter quit her job over the summer, even though I warned her she might regret it. The pay was good, she didn’t have to work a lot, and she loves to spend money. But she was determined to leave it. In the months since, she hasn’t found another one, and her bank account has run dry.

I could have told her she wasn’t allowed to quit or tried harder to talk her into staying, but I didn’t. After parenting three teens, I’ve learned a few things about giving my kids room to make mistakes. Sometimes, you have to let them fall flat on their face.

When my son was a sophomore in high school, he hated history class. I went round and round with him with no luck. One day, I told him if he wasn’t going to do his schoolwork or get the extra help he needed, there was nothing I could do. I wasn’t about to do it for him. Ultimately, he failed for the year and had to retake it.

After taking the dreaded class again, he turned things around. He never failed a class again, because he “never wanted to go through that again, and it was easier to do the work the first time.”

I don’t believe failure is a bad word. It shows where we still have work to do, and sometimes it can teach us it’s okay to let go of something that isn’t meant to be.

As a parent, it’s tough to watch your kids make mistakes or fail at something, but I think it’s essential. Here’s why:

They can get more value out of life.

When our kids struggle, when they have to correct a mistake or they disappoint someone, it hits them harder than if we swoop in and fix it for them. We don’t get good at doing hard things if someone else always comes in and saves us.

It also helps them appreciate the times when they succeed more. It gives them a basis for comparison — plus they know the victory is theirs.

They learn a lot faster.

We can warn our kids about certain things over and over. We can tell them staying up too late the night before a test isn’t a good idea, or that we don’t trust one of their friends. Of course there are times when it’s necessary to intervene in their life to keep them safe.

But if we start letting them learn from their mistakes when they are young, they’re better able to assess the risks themselves. They will never be able to do that if we are constantly rescuing them.

I am not always there to guide them.

Parents aren’t always around their kids, especially their teenagers. It’s physically impossible. The more we let them learn and discover things on their own, the more confident we can be that they will navigate difficult situations without us.

It helps them learn empathy.

When my kids hurt someone’s feelings and they have to make the situation right, or they make a mistake they have to correct, it gives them more empathy for others who make mistakes. Everybody messes up, and showing empathy to someone else is one of the greatest gifts you can give.

It helps them learn how to take responsibility.

If our kids know that whatever they mess up, they’ll have to fix, it encourages them to take ownership of their actions. They will try hard, they will take more risks, they will build more self-confidence around unknown situations. If they depend on their parents to do their work and make their apologies and excuses, they’ll rely on that.

I hate watching my kids fail. It takes everything I have not to dive in and fix things for them. As their mother, it feels more natural to do things for them so they don’t suffer. But I know if I give them the easy way out, they will suffer even more.

Katie Bingham-Smith is a full-time freelance writer living in Maine with her three teens and two ducks. When she’s not writing she’s probably spending too money online and drinking Coke Zero.