Allow Your Children to Fail

By Cathy Walls - 08/12/2019


Allow my children to fail? Huh? How does that make sense? Why would I not protect my children from failure? If I don’t, my children may feel sad or left out or not good enough. His or her self-esteem will be damaged. Isn’t it my job as a parent to make sure my children are happy?

Although counterintuitive, allowing your children to struggle with disappointment or failure is the hallmark of good enough parenting: babies and children actually benefit when their mothers fail them in manageable ways. Children benefit when they encounter difficulties in their life, not when their parents have snowplowed a perfectly clear path for them. They benefit when they learn to tolerate all feeling states, regulate themselves, manage challenges, and accept failure. They develop healthy self-esteem and healthy relationships with others.

I recently read an article about the mental health crisis on college campuses. College students are stressed out and they lack the ability to cope with failure and disappointment. Parents are seen as failing their children by protecting them from stress and anxiety instead of teaching them how to cope with stress and anxiety. I meet with parents and children who are struggling. Some parents feel bad that they didn’t prevent this struggle or that they have to seek professional help. I try to help them understand that contrary to letting their children down, they are modeling that it is ok to admit to struggling and to seek help.

Stress is an expected part of life. It can’t be avoided. Growth is associated with stress. Maturity and wisdom come from failing and effectively managing stressful situations. We do best by our children by teaching them how to cope with stress rather than protecting them from its experience. Good enough parenting requires us to be able to tolerate our children’s pain although it is difficult and painful for us.

The concept of the good enough mother was first coined by Donald Winnicott in 1953. In his work as a British pediatrician and psychoanalyst, he observed thousands of babies and mothers and came to realize that babies actually benefit when their mothers fail them in manageable ways. They need their primary caretakers to fail them in tolerable ways on a consistent basis to learn to live in an imperfect world. Trees grow stronger roots by being blown around by wind. Children grow stronger by managing challenging events in their lives.

The good enough parent is cognizant of their child’s developmental stage and supports their child’s learning and growth. The good enough parent can tolerate, embrace, and provide a space for her child to work through painful experiences. Good enough parenting is not mediocre. Good enough is thoughtful. Good enough is making rational choices. Good enough frees us and our children to be perfectly imperfect and to fail. Good enough is optimistic and tells us that failure and the painful feelings that accompany it help us to learn and grow.

So, although the advice to allow our children to fail may appear counterintuitive at first glance, the good enough parent will recognize its importance and will support their children through their struggles and emphasize what is being learned. They will praise them for facing and not avoiding difficult, challenging situations where they may fail or that may not go according to their plans. Don’t allow your children to struggle alone and don’t fix their struggles for them. Help them to learn how to tolerate difficult, painful feelings without numbing or denying them. Help them to learn how to problem solve. Teach them how to ask for help when it is needed. By doing this, you teach them that although painful, failure is a part of life. Everyone misses the mark at times. It is only in trying to hide our missteps that we experience shame.

Radical recommendation: Encourage your children to fail. Praise them for trying new things, for thinking outside the box, for taking risks in connecting with others, for being brave enough to be who they are. Teach your children that they are strong and capable, not fragile and definitely not alone.

Article by Cathy Walls, Psy.D

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