As a parent, it’s difficult to see your child try something and fail. It’s even harder when he already faces challenges and disappointments due to learning and thinking differences.
But failure can be a great teacher. Here, five experts share their thoughts on why, and when, it’s OK to let kids fail.
What can kids gain from failing?
Kelli Johnson, educational speech-language pathologist: Kids who get the message that it’s OK to fail also learn that it’s OK to try. They’re able to enjoy new and different activities because the stakes aren’t so high. Kids who are allowed to make mistakes also learn to solve problems and understand natural consequences.
Elizabeth Harstad, developmental behavioral pediatrician, Boston Children’s Hospital: Kids who experience failure can learn that it’s OK to take risks. They can also learn how to tolerate frustration. These are traits that can serve them well as adults. When kids experience something like a poor grade, there’s a way to move forward and improve the next time.
Brendan Hodnett, special education teacher: Failing is another stepping stone in the learning process. We can teach kids to embrace their mistakes as a way of improving themselves. Practicing this reflective process of seeing where they went wrong, making changes and then trying again increases learning. It also builds resilience and perseverance.
Donna Volpitta, founder, Center for Resilient Leadership: Kids can gain so many lessons from failure. When we don’t swoop in to save them, they’re forced to learn how to avoid making the same mistakes in the future. It pushes kids to learn to try new strategies. Parents can use failures as opportunities to teach those lessons.
Mark Griffin, founding headmaster, Eagle Hill School: Kids with learning and thinking differences can gain a lot from failing at something they do—but only if there is a genuine opportunity for them to learn from the failure. There has to be a way for them to develop a set of strategies to be successful and avoid failure in the future. Simply failing at a task without strategies to plan better for the next time usually doesn’t help very much.
When is it OK to let your child fail at something—and when isn’t it?
Kelli Johnson: You want to give your child space to make mistakes and solve problems. But you may need to make judgments about what he’s ready to handle. As a parent and advocate, you want to make sure he has the tools and supports he needs to succeed on his own.
Brendan Hodnett: Allowing kids to fail is best when there’s time for feedback and reflection. This sounds time-consuming, but it doesn’t have to be. It could be as simple as a quick discussion of what went wrong and how it can be fixed.
Donna Volpitta: If there’s a learning opportunity, it can be a good idea to let kids fail. But there are times when they may need extra support, and even if there is a lesson, failure isn’t a good idea. It’s OK to bail out your child sometimes—as long as you provide scaffolds to get him to learn how to navigate on his own. But it’s important to be mindful, and to understand why you’re supporting him.
Mark Griffin: A good rule of thumb is to let kids fail when they have a good shot at learning from it and getting better at problem-solving the next time. This applies to whatever they’re doing—reading, playing a sport or participating in a club activity. If kids have no chance of success because of lack of skills or strategies, constant failure only make things worse.
What can you say or do to help your child learn from failing?
Elizabeth Harstad: If your child is upset by his failed attempt, it can help to acknowledge his feelings. Use emotion words like angry or sad to help him label his feelings and learn how to cope with them. Remind him of his strengths and help him identify what may have gone wrong to contribute to the failure. Then come up with a plan for how to try differently next time.
Brendan Hodnett: When kids play video games they explore each level through trial and error. And they naturally correct their mistakes each time until they get to the end. This approach can be applied to other things. When your child is trying something new, set the expectations high and let him explore. Remind him that failing doesn’t mean it’s over—it just means he can do better.
Kelli Johnson: Help your child see that he can use failure to his advantage—that it’s a way to practice for success. When he fails at something he’s worked hard to achieve, make time to talk about the process. What did he enjoy about trying something new? What new things did he learn along the way?
More Things You Can Do
Failing at something, and then learning from mistakes, can build your child’s self-awareness and help him become a better self-advocate. It can also make him more willing to take chances and try new things. You can help him by giving him the right kind of praise and talking about strengths and weaknesses.