Allowing kids the freedom to fail

Sara Korber DeWeerd

When my kids were babies, attentiveness was an excellent asset in my parenting skill set. Babies need almost constant supervision and a gentle, guiding hand to learn the basics of being a human. Being a vigilant mom helped me keep my little adventurers alive for the first decade of their lives. 

But now? Well, now it just makes me annoying. 

So how does a mom who’s really good at investing in her kids’ well-being back off a bit during their tween and teen years to give them breathing room? How can I give them room to claim their own successes and, perhaps even more importantly, room to experience failure? 

Now, wait a minute...failure? We want our kids to fail? That sounded like an alarming idea as I sat in my daughter’s fifth grade classroom this past September at back-to-school night. Her teacher was holding up a book that she called a “must-read” for parents preparing to launch into the middle years of raising kids. Being an avid reader and very good rule follower myself, I immediately ordered it off Amazon and dove in. 

Vermont-based writer and educator Jessica Lahey is the author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go so Their Children Can Learn to Succeed. Her years of research and teaching adolescents have revealed a truth that runs counter to most of our instincts as parents raising kids in a competitive society: Allow your kids to fail. Allow them to make mistakes, experience consequences, and grow.

“Kids of highly directive or controlling parents (so-called ‘helicopter’ or ‘snowplow’ parents) are less able to deal with their frustration when tasks get challenging, and less likely to complete those difficult tasks,” Lahey said of her research for the book. “Difficult tasks are part of so-called ‘desirable difficulties,’ a really important and powerful teaching tool—one of the most powerful teaching tools I use in my classroom and at home with my own children—and kids who are not able to push through frustration are going to be much less likely to complete, and therefore learn, from these tasks.” 

Desirable difficulties are small failures—low-stakes challenges or risks with a high potential for positive growth.

“Learning that comes with challenge is stored more effectively and more durably in the brain than learning that comes easily,” Lahey writes inThe Gift of Failure. “So, at essence, rescuing kids from consequences and pushing challenges out of their way renders kids less able to learn, and less likely to complete challenging tasks, the very tasks that teach them the most and help them feel most capable and competent.”

Lahey emphasizes the importance of nurturing a “growth mindset” in our children. People with a fixed mindset, she summarizes, believe that ability is innate and remains the same no matter what one does throughout life. People with a growth mindset know that individual talent is just a starting point and are motivated to learn for learning’s sake, because they know that challenging themselves, taking risks, failing and trying again are essential elements of personal development. And the process lasts a lifetime. 

Parents have the most influence when it comes to nurturing a growth mindset in their children. When we overparent, swooping in to rescue our kids from disappointment, rejection, and failure, “we communicate to our kids that we don’t have faith in their ability to grow, improve, and surmount challenges, and we encourage a fixed mindset,” she writes. 

What does overparenting look like? It looks like rushing the forgotten homework assignment to school so our kids don’t get a zero. Or arguing with a ref about a bad call on the sidelines of a game. It could be unsolicited advice on assignments or doing projects for our kids to save precious time and arguing with teachers about the grades they receive. Overparenting could even be paying them for good report cards and promising gifts when they pass a test. 

Instead of letting them figure out what they can and can’t do, solving problems for themselves and reaping the feeling of accomplishment, we sacrifice our kids’ autonomy thinking we’re protecting them. 

We may mean well when we do things for them or shower them with extrinsic rewards, but we aren’t doing our kids any favors.

As a parent of three children, one of whom has a developmental disability, I wondered how this “autonomy-supportive” parenting and teaching could apply to my son, who needs a high level of support at home and has a 1-1 aide at school to help him succeed academically. I could imagine giving my girls space to try and fail, but I wasn't sure what that would look like for my son.

Lahey responded with an approach that takes into account the unique gifts and challenges of every child, regardless of ability. 

“All kids, not just neurotypical kids, need adults to convey the message that they are competent and loved for themselves, not for their grades,” she said. “My advice for any parent, based on the research on the impact of teacher expectations on student performance, is to set our expectations for our kids at just a hair beyond their ability level. We often underestimate what our kids can do because we are afraid they will fail and feel bad about themselves, when we should be encouraging our kids to try things that are challenging, and reassure them that even if they can’t do that thing yet, they will be able to master it given some patience, effort, and time. ‘Yet’ is a powerful word, a word of growth, faith, and support.” 

Encouragement to try new things, tackle tasks independently, and the freedom to fail must be matched with our empathy when mistakes do happen. Rather than swooping in to fix, we can open our arms to support. 

Kids need to know that their attempts are valuable and that we see their hard work. That way, they’ll feel comfortable taking on bigger challenges as they grow. 

“It’s up to us,” writes Lahey. “Parents have the power to grant this freedom to fail. Teachers have the ability to transform that failure into an education. And together? Together, we have the potential to nurture a generation of confident, competent adults.”

Sara Korber-DeWeerd is a freelance writer and educator in the Bay State. She loves reading, travel, the outdoors, and spending time with her family.

1. Guide your children toward solutions. Look for teachable moments by asking your kids questions that lead them toward independent problem-solving. For example: I see you’re struggling with that math problem. What if you look at the other problems you did to see if you can figure out a good way to do this one.

2. Allow your children to make mistakes. Then, help them understand the consequences of those mistakes. Lahey cites the example of seeing her son’s homework on the table as he ran to the bus. She could have easily brought it to school for him, but instead she left it in its place; he later reported that he figured out a solution on his own with his teacher for how to turn the work in late.

3. Teach kids to value mistakes as much as successes. Lahey notes that if she had brought her son’s homework, he would not have had the opportunity to solve his problem independently. His mistake showed him he was capable of handling the situation himself.

4. Give feedback that supports kids’ efforts and guides them toward seeing their mistakes. For example: "You must have been so frustrated when you realized you left your assignment at home. Maybe packing your bag the night before will help you remember it next time."

5. Acknowledge your child’s feelings of frustration and disappointment. Empathy is a powerful tool. For example: "I know how much you wanted the lead role in the musical, and I saw how much effort you put into preparing for the audition. I’m really proud of the way you gave it your all."

5 strategies for autonomy-supportive parenting