Is it ever OK to let your child fail? It can be difficult to see your child try something and fail. But sometimes FAIL stands for “First Attempt At Learning.”
In this episode, hosts Amanda Morin and Bob Cunningham speak with a mom, Meg, about letting her son learn from his failures. Meg also talks about the difference between being accountable for your mistakes and being at fault for them.
Listen in. Then read experts’ thoughts on why and when it’s OK to let kids fail.
Amanda: [00:00:04] Hi. I'm Amanda Morin, a writer for Understood.org, a parent to kids with learning issues, and a former teacher.
Bob: [00:00:10] And I'm Bob Cunningham, a career educator and now the executive director for learning development at Understood.
Amanda: [00:00:16] And we are "In It."
Bob: [00:00:18] "In It" is a podcast from Understood. On this show, we'll hear from parents and sometimes kids, and we'll offer support and advice for families whose kids are struggling with learning and thinking differences.
Amanda: [00:00:28] Today, we're talking about... letting kids fail.
Amanda: [00:00:38] The thinking behind letting kids fail is failure is the way that you learn to adjust and make better decisions. So we say let your kids fail. But when you have kids who learn and think a little bit differently, letting your kids fail is a little more complicated. It feels like there's more at stake. Because we already see our kids failing at a lot of things that other kids can do more easily.
Bob: [00:01:00] Yeah, when your child is struggling with things that most kids aren't struggling with, it's really easy to get the idea that the deck is stacked against them.
Amanda: [00:01:09] Right.
Bob: [00:01:10] Another thing you're gonna know as a parent is that your child doesn't rebound as quickly. If they fail at something, it's going to stick with them longer because they don't have the tools to make sense of it as a learning experience.
Amanda: [00:01:24] Right. So letting a kid who thinks and learns a little bit definitely fail has the potential for some bigger consequences. However, it doesn't mean we shouldn't do it, right? I mean...
Bob: [00:01:35] Exactly.
Amanda: [00:01:35] It doesn't mean we shouldn't do it. And so the question is, when should we let our kids fail? And is it really worth it, given the risk involved, like failing out of school or quitting? Here's what some of you had to say.
Sarah: [00:01:48] Hi. My name is Sarah, and I wanted to share something about letting your kids fail. I was on the playground last week with my child and a bunch of his friends from school and a bunch of parents were there, too. And some of the kids got into a disagreement. And it wasn't huge. But one child felt very upset and was on the verge of crying and we all sort of raced in and were like, oh, it's OK, let's work this out. But the truth was that I kind of didn't want to rush in. I wanted them to figure it out themselves. And maybe that girl would have felt hurt for a little while and maybe they would have come to a compromise. But the other parents didn't seem like they were about to just kind of hang back. And so what I think is hard about letting your kid fail is it's not just letting your kids fail. It's also a whole dynamic that goes on at the parent level. It's much easier, I think, in a way, to let your kid fail, at least socially, if there's no other parent around that you have to negotiate with. So that if you're the only grown-up in the room, you can hang back and let the kids work it out. But if you don't have buy-in from another parent, as the other parent is there, you can't really do that. You sort of have to make sure that all the parents involved are willing to step back. Or you have to have a thick enough skin that you don't care what the other parents say. And you hang back even while they may rush in and try to manipulate the social situation. Anyway, it's tough out there. Thanks.
Bob: [00:03:15] Today we're going to hear from Meg, whose son is a junior in high school. In his sophomore year, he made a decision that seemed to be putting him on a direct path to failure. Meg knew things could go disastrously, and in many ways they did.
Meg: [00:03:34] OK, so my son is 16. When he's feeling well, he's a really gregarious, energetic guy who likes to play guitar and play video games. He has a lot of friends, a lot of people like him. He's dealt with anxiety and depression since he was little guy, little child. Probably it really started to be apparent when he was about 8 years old. He also has ADHD and an auditory processing disorder.
Amanda: [00:04:05] Meg's son, who we're not going to name just to give him some privacy, has had an IEP since he was about 7 or 8 years old. An IEP is an Individualized Education Program, and it provides specialized instruction, support, and some changes in the classroom to help them learn better. But last year, Meg's son undecided somewhat abruptly that he didn't need his IEP anymore.
Meg: [00:04:26] He advocated for himself during an IEP meeting that he didn't want to have an IEP in place anymore. He was feeling really good and emotionally strong, and he just wanted to be done with all accommodations.
Amanda: [00:04:39] So together with the school, they came up with a plan. Her son would go from an IEP to a 504. This meant he could still use accommodations if he needed them, but there wouldn't be a special education teacher to support him or to monitor his progress in any way. Taking off those guardrails, or at least lowering them a little bit, was a tough decision. But both Meg and her husband agreed to it.
Meg: [00:05:01] He was so eloquent and so, so mature in the way that he defended his desire to be done with the supports. And if I had said no to that, it would have been really, I think, undermining to him. In the back of my mind, I was thinking this really could fall apart. And then what are we going to do?
Bob: [00:05:22] Things got off to a pretty good start. But then Meg's son started feeling depressed. This took a toll on his confidence and then even on his ability to get out of bed. He started falling way behind at school.
Meg: [00:05:33] It really looked like things were spiraling out of control.
Amanda: [00:05:37] When Meg let her son take school into his own hands, she had not factored in the possibility of his depression returning. And to be clear, she doesn't think taking away the IEP caused the depression. But the combination of the two were more than her son could handle, and he was failing.
Bob: [00:05:52] Meg did what she could to help. She made sure her son understood that she was available if he needed it. But she was determined not to just swoop in and try to fix things. For instance, with his math class.
Meg: [00:06:03] Near the end of the school year, I just told him what he needed to do to get through the class and kind of left it in his hands to get it done or not get it done. And he didn't get it done.
Amanda: [00:06:18] How did he feel about you making the decision to say "this is in your hands"?
Meg: [00:06:24] You know, it's interesting because I think there's like a double-edge sword sort of thing. By giving him the responsibility, then he can't, like, blame me.
Amanda: [00:06:35] I think you just described teenagers in a nutshell.
Meg: [00:06:41] [laughter] So I think when he realized that that wasn't a choice anymore, I think maybe it was sort of eye-opening for him.
Amanda: [00:06:48] Meg didn't stop her son from failing, but she did give him tools to put that failure into perspective.
Meg: [00:06:54] I tried to make it clear that there's like a difference between being responsible for something and feeling blame.
Amanda: [00:07:01] Tell me what the difference is.
Meg: [00:07:03] So I can make a mistake and say, boy, I really messed that up. And next time I can try to do something better. That's like taking responsibility. To take the blame is to say I really messed that up. I'm a horrible person. I can't believe I let that thing happen. I should have never tried those things again. I can't believe what a mess-up I am. And so in relation to, like, say, the math class that my son failed, he decided not to do the work. He, in a way, kind of was responsible for his — well, he was responsible for that failure. He could say, oops, look at that. The things that I did to cope with this issue didn't work. And so next time I'm going to try a different method, like maybe I'll go to class. Maybe I'll try to do my homework instead of saying I'm so stupid. I told you I couldn't do it. I'm a bad person and I'm bad at math. You know what I mean?
Amanda: [00:07:56] Yeah. And it sounds like you learned from this experience, too.
Meg: [00:07:59] Oh, right. I think there were so many learning opportunities. Enough to go around for everybody. I think sometimes with my son, if we approach things in too strong a way, it's like, either it's my way or it's no way, I think then he just shuts down. Also, I think sometimes we make choices like do I want to live in a home where we can all tolerate each other being in the same room?
Amanda: [00:08:25] Mmm-hmm.
Meg: [00:08:25] Or do I want to create so much tension that.... It was almost like we began to prioritize the quality of our time together, rather than some other things that other parents might think are very important.
Amanda: [00:08:44] Now, Meg's son is in his junior year of high school, and they've managed to find a pretty good compromise between her son having total independence over his schoolwork and she and her husband having some oversight.
Meg: [00:08:55] At this point, I'm not going to be able to sit down and make him do his work. But I do plan on checking in with him at the end of the week to see what assignments that he's had and if he's gotten them passed in. I think that's just like a real concrete thing that we can do. He was really resistant to that last year.
Amanda: [00:09:14] So this, is this an agreement you came to together?
Meg: [00:09:17] Yes, we — he and I — have talked about it. I've agreed not to just go on to the internet campus thing on the computer and just kind of like sneak around and check in on his work. But that he and I could sit down together at the end of the week and take a look and just see what he's got going on and if he's gotten everything done. And that if he doesn't, then I know it and he knows it. And where that goes from there, I don't know. But the fact is, is that he's much more OK with me being somewhat involved, but I know that there's a limit. And so we're both aware of that boundary.
Amanda: [00:10:04] So I'm wondering what strikes you about her story. And you know, what might help other parents understand the risk and benefits of letting our kids fail.
Bob: [00:10:13] A couple things stood out to me. First of all, the example that she uses with him deciding to no longer participate in an IEP — that's high stakes, right? They've put so much time and effort to get the right kinds of goals and objectives, the right kinds of support, the right kinds of accommodations on that IEP. He was doing well with it.
Amanda: [00:10:35] Right.
Bob: [00:10:35] Right? So now he's saying, I'm just not going to do this anymore. I don't think I need it anymore. Will you want him to feel that way? Right. You want him to feel like he can do it on his own. But you can tell that as his mom, Meg wonders whether or not that's actually going to be a good decision or kind of more likely everything's gonna fall apart.
Amanda: [00:10:56] Well, the thing that struck me about that was that, you know, the idea of, do I jump in and make sure he doesn't fail and our house feels all tense all the time? Or do I back away a little bit and maybe let him fail and know that we're gonna be OK as a family unit?
Bob: [00:11:15] Yeah, from a from a practical perspective, it also sends a very clear message to the teachers who work with him, right? So if he's saying, I want out of this, and Mom's saying, no, you have to stay in it, there's no way that the teachers don't leave that meeting saying, oh, this is all about Mom.
Amanda: [00:11:32] What really struck me is that she really put things in place to let him fail sort of successfully, which sounds like an oxymoron, right? Let's fail successfully. But there are ways to do that. There are ways to let your kid....
Bob: [00:11:43] Yeah. And they came up with a really good one, which is they didn't quit supports cold turkey, right? There was much more responsibility on him. But it's not like all the possible support was suddenly ripped away.
Amanda: [00:11:54] Well, he failed a math class that he now has to take again.
Bob: [00:11:57] That's right.
Amanda: [00:11:57] Right. So it wasn't like she went to the administration and said, this is why he failed the math class. It was like, you failed a math class. So how are you gonna fix this? And I think that's how we set kids up to fail successfully is putting supports in place. So it's not like they have no net underneath them.
Bob: [00:12:13] Right. The key for parents is really to have a good understanding of what the consequences are, right? And to be able to put those potential consequences into perspective.
Amanda: [00:12:25] Right. You know, like you think about younger kids, too, because this is this is high stakes, in part because he's a high school student. But with younger kids, if they don't have their sneakers for gym class, they'll have their sneakers the next day for gym class.
Bob: [00:12:38] And if they won't, and you know that about your child, then the thing to do is to speak to the people at school. Still let him forget the gym sneakers, right? But make sure that the people at school are going to react in a way that is supportive and encouraging to a child who's not at this point able to get his gym sneakers from point A to point B.
Amanda: [00:13:04] Or in my house get both of them from point A to point B. Somehow we come home with one sneaker.
Bob: [00:13:09] I was just gonna say you have the one-sneaker child.
Amanda: [00:13:12] Yeah, they come off the bus with one sneaker. I'm not sure where the other one went. But so for littler kids, younger kids, I think that there are smaller ways we can teach them that failure is OK.
Bob: [00:13:21] There are, sort of low-risk ways.
Amanda: [00:13:23] Yeah. I mean, you know it's not — I wouldn't suggest to a parent necessarily that if you know your kid is not going to get along with anybody on the playground, that you drop them off and go get coffee and then come back.
Bob: [00:13:38] Right. That's a totally unreasonable risk.
Amanda: [00:13:40] But I would say, OK, I know that you have one friend there, and I'm going to sit sort of much further back than I usually do and let you figure out how you're gonna get along with that child and not jump in if they start or you start arguing, or you start, you know....
Bob: [00:13:56] Right.
Amanda: [00:13:56] They're climbing up the slide while you're going down the slide. I'm not going to fix that. I'm going to let you try and figure that one out.
Cindy: [00:14:05] Hi. My name is Cindy and I'm in Scarborough, Maine. I'm calling about a story about letting my child fail in eighth grade, third quarter. My oldest, who's now 16, was failing her math class. I knew she was failing because I could see her grades online. But when I would ask if she needed help, she always said she was fine and wouldn't let on that she wasn't doing well. So I just let it go. And sure enough, in the third quarter she ended up with a 62. That, of course, triggered her needing additional help in the class, having to tell her mom and dad — that's us — that she failed the class. All sorts of tears and heartache. The good news is she worked her butt off in that fourth quarter and ended up with a 98 for that particular quarter and a very good grade for the entire year. She also learned that she hates failing and that it wasn't worth it to not just reach out for help.
Amanda: [00:15:06] Is there ever a time when it's not OK to let your kid fail?
Bob: [00:15:10] For me, when there's no chance of success or when there are no tools in place and there's really no likelihood that she's going to be able to figure out what to do or come back to you and process this and learn from it with you, then it's not worth it.
Bob: [00:15:36] You've been listening to "In It," a podcast from Understood. Our website is Understood.org, where you can find all sorts of free resources for people raising kids who learn and think differently.
Amanda: [00:15:46] We also want to hear what you think of our show. "In It" is for you. So we want to make sure you're getting what you need. Go to u.org/podcast to share your thoughts and also to find those resources. That's the letter "U," as in Understood, dot O R G slash podcast.
Bob: [00:16:01] And if you like what you heard today, please tell someone about it. Share it with your family or your friends or even your child's teacher. You can also go to Apple Podcasts and rate us, which is a great way to let other people know about "In It."
Amanda: [00:16:13] You can also subscribe to "In It" on Apple Podcast, follow us on Spotify, or keep up with us however you listen to podcasts. Between episodes, you can find Understood on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and YouTube. Or visit our website: U, that's the letter "U," dot org.
Bob: [00:16:28] Our show is produced by Julie Subrin and Sara Ivry. Mike Errico wrote our theme music and Laura Kusnyer is our executive director for editorial content.
Amanda: [00:16:36] Thanks for listening, everyone, and thanks for always being in it with us.
Bob: [00:16:50] "In It" is a production of Understood.
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Gretchen Vierstra, MA
is the managing editor at Understood and co-host of the In It podcast. She’s a former educator with experience teaching and designing programs in schools, organizations, and online learning spaces.
is co-host of the In It podcast and the parent of two kids with ADHD. She has a background in writing and editing content for kids and parents.