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Why and How to Let Your Child Fail

A growing body of research has shown us that grit, determination and resilience are strongly predictive of a person’s success in academics, careers and projects. What do these characteristics look like in children, and how can a parent support the development of these characteristics?

Consider this mother’s story:

My daughter tried out for the second time this year for “stage crew,” a group that assists with school plays. For the second time, she was not picked. It took everything in me not to call the school and try to get her a spot. I began to blame myself, “Do we not give enough to the annual fund?” I felt a strong need to fix this for her – but I thought about it and decided not to call because then I would be the parent who “fixes it” for her children. Later that evening, my daughter said she was upset, but, then to my surprise stated, “There will be another opportunity and I can apply again next year.” And there they were – grit, resilience and determination. They might not have come forward had I solved this problem for her.

How can you help your children become resilient? Here are some things to consider.

Let them develop their natural resilience. Children are born as little scientists. They explore the world and constantly try to make sense of it. When Determinationsomething fails or when children have difficulty getting something to work, their natural instinct is to keep trying to find a solution. This natural proclivity to work through problems and to find solutions demonstrates grit, determination and resilience.

Let them fail. It is tempting to help your children after every misstep and to provide solutions when they fail. However, creating successes for your children prevents them from creating their own successes. It is better to have your children experience disappointment now under your guidance and care rather than later in life when they do not have you to help guide and coach them. If you let your children try to work things out on their own, they will naturally begin to innovate and find solutions. During this process, you can provide emotional support for them. You can pick them up, dust them off and help them understand what just happened while encouraging them to keep going.

Avoid teaching irrational optimism. It is tempting to tell children that everything will be better. However, irrationally optimistic adults are shown to falter first. The healthier message is that they can sometimes make bad things better. Give your children some responsibility for improving bad situations. Help them learn that sometimes life’s negatives are within our control and we can fix them, and at other times they are not in our control, and we need to understand what our perceptions of them are and what we can do. Give your children a vocabulary to identify and explain their emotions while teaching them coping skills to manage their emotions.

Instill strong values and the belief that it is always worth making things better. When adults face tough times, those who make it through with the least damage and most growth are able to separate what really matters from what seems to matter based on their values. Give your children a strong value set to strengthen them during hard times. Help them to understand what is important and model it. For example, the next time you are in a traffic jam, take the opportunity to have some family time in the car and demonstrate that, while the situation is frustrating, it is insignificant in the big picture. Point out the humor in frustrating times; resilient people can often find humor in tough situations.

More than anything, make sure that your children feel supported and loved. Attachment and security at a young age are paramount in developing these skills.