Beyond the Classroom: It’s OK to let your child fail

“In the process of a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly, the newly formed butterfly must struggle to burst free of the cocoon. In that process the blood flows to the butterfly’s wings so it may fly. If one was to help the butterfly free itself but cutting open the cocoon, the butterfly would be unable to fly and would die. It is the struggle that gives the butterfly wings to fly.”

Anne Josephson

One day, while I was walking with a good friend of mine, we were lamenting about how we feel the need to save our kids from messing up. We also both began to think: were we really trying to save them from failing, or just saving our own souls from having to pick up the mess if we actually let them fail? And who are we to alter fate?


At face value, no parent wants to see their child fail. Character-building or not, a warning alarm goes off inside most of us when our children are faced with a potential failure.

But history shows that when people (or kids) fail, they become stronger. There is a list of famous people who failed — from JK Rowling who, before Harry Potter, was a single mom getting by with government assistance; to Walt Disney, father of Mickey Mouse and the Disney empire who was fired from a Missouri newspaper for not being creative; to Steve Jobs, creator of the Apple empire who was fired by the company he started; to Michael Jordan, the six-time NBA champion and father of the “Air Jordan” sneaker empire who was dumped from his high school basketball team.

But as parents, it takes brute strength to step aside and allow kids their chance to fail when we know we can step in and do something. A medical analogy comes to mind — not letting kids fail is akin to keeping them in a germ free bubble for the first 18 years as compared to allowing them to be vaccinated and letting their body make antibodies.

The bubble makes us feel good, what happens but the day they have to step out of the bubble? In that time, they have created no defenses against what they must confront. While the vaccinated kids have the antibodies, the bubble kids have nothing but a false sense of past security.

Failing, Stumbling, they are both OK

CNN writer Kelly Wallace in her article “Brutally Honest: Is it OK to let your child fail?” shares the everyday parental desire to “help” our children. From the mother who helps a bit too much with homework to the dad who builds the student’s science fair projects.

She refers to Jessica Lahey, whose article “Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail” and her recent book “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed,” says while most parents are well-intentioned, our fear for our children’s shortcomings or hopes of “bucking up our kids’ self-esteem” does more harm than good.

Teachers more than anyone can share the new level of over-protectiveness of today’s parents and the brutal reality of how helpless and powerless their children are.

Overprotection defined

At any given moment, when we can catch ourselves saying “let me do that for you” or “let me help you with that,” we are really saying to our kids, “I don’t think you can do that for yourself.” That message is highly damaging over time.

From Dr. Spock to Dr. Susan Newman, one of the standard Western notions of good parenting has been “high responsiveness” (responding to your child’s needs) coupled with “high demandingness” (expecting things of your child, such as good grades or doing their chores).

In doing so, we created a helpless culture of kids unable to handle anything on their own. Research shows that overprotective parenting — whether helicoptering (always hovering), snow plowing (always clearing a path) or bubble-wrapping (always ensuring no harm comes their way) — often leads to anxiety and depression in college students, and decreased feelings of autonomy and competence in the workplace. The more over-protection early on, the more dependent and neurotic kids become later.

According to Judith Locke, et al., at Queensland University of Technology, over-parenting is characterized as a parent’s “misguided attempt to improve their child’s current and future personal and academic success.”

While things like not allowing a child to go to camp or learn to drive are small in scale, more worrisome are those things that parents do that have the potential to ruin a child’s confidence and undermine independence.

These include taking their child’s perception as truth, despite the facts, or denying the possibility that their child was at fault. Locke terms these parents “highly responsive and low demanding.” Parents who don’t give their children the chance to solve their own problems. Parents who rush to school to deliver forgotten lunches, forgotten assignments or forgotten uniforms. Parents who won’t let their child learn — not just reading writing and arithmetic, but responsibility, organization, manners, restraint and foresight. And as children journey into adulthood, these are definitely the most important life skills.

What is failure?

Vicki Hoefle, author of “Duct Tape Parenting: A Less is More Approach to Raising Respectful, Responsible and Resilient Kids,” says that while many parents might disagree on letting kids fail and what that means, most will agree on the need for parents to let kids stumble and then teach them how to get up again.

Failing a spelling test because a child didn’t study is quite different then letting a middle school student fail a core subject because they chose not to do the assignments. Balance.

So why do we do it?

Professionals like Lahey say we do it because we want our kids to love us. We want to feel needed. When we rescue our kids we feel like good parents. We also tend to see our children as extensions of ourselves — when we allow them to fail, that reflects on us and it’s uncomfortable.

We have to remind ourselves that if we continue rescuing, we will have helpless kids who either feel incredibly entitled or totally helpless.

Anne Josephson in her article “Why is it hard to let kids fail and how a butterfly can help,” shares a few reasons and insights behind overprotective parenting:

▪ When kids fail, they will feel pain. No one gets through life without pain. Success comes with struggle. It becomes the great motivator. The gift we can give them is the gift of resilience - teaching them to believe in themselves and that they have the power to rise up and start over.

▪ If they fail, they will want to quit. No one wants to raise a quitter and failure may bring about a desire to quit. Teach your children that they have choices: quitting and persevering. Offer support rather than a shield.

▪ If they fail, they will develop a low self-esteem. Failure doesn’t cause low self-esteem. Low self-esteem develops by how we react to the failures and our belief in overcoming adversity. Keep your kids in high regard no matter the outcome and teach coping mechanisms before they are needed.

▪ If they fail they will not be successful. If failure meant no one would be successful, we would never have any of the scientific or engineering inventions we enjoy today. Failure just means it didn’t work. No one is great at everything every time.

▪ If they fail, they won’t try again. Maybe your child didn’t try very hard at that specific effort. But it doesn’t mean they have a universally poor work ethic. Humans are not machines.

▪ If they fail, it means we are bad parents. Kids are human beings with strengths and weaknesses. As such, they are flawed yet still deserving of our love.

▪ If they fail, they must be in the wrong place. Sometimes the environment is the issue but not as frequently as many think it is. It is best to calm down before pulling the trigger because our children’s failures are not always the fault of others.

Pam Houghton of the MetroParent Daily, says that failure is an opportunity to realize limits, adjust and learn from mistakes. Kids need to careen, crash, stutter and, ultimately, soar. Jenifer Meer in her article, “My Parents Let Me Fail, Which Taught Me How To Live,” refers to Angela Duckworth’s 2013 TED Talk. Duckworth, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, says that when kids learn how the brain responds to challenge, they are more likely to persevere when they fail because they understand that failure is not a permanent condition.

Impact of the 21st Century

As a group, we are so busy helping kids succeed, we became afraid to let them fail. According to Hara Marano, in her book “A Nation of Wimps,” messing up is out of style. Despite the fact that error and experimentation are the basis of success, parents feel the need to remove failure from the equation.

For many, it is scarier to raise children today. Parents want their children to be competitive in the current global economy. And so the pressure starts early.

Marano reflects on the changes as early as kindergarten. Kindergarten is no longer for socialization. Kindergartners are expected to learn how to read and do simple math. Competition intensifies. So parents feel that their child needs to be the best and if they are not, it has to be fixed.

How do we stop our misdirected intentions?

It is much easier to rescue kids than it is to allow them to stumble. But then again, no one said parenting was easy. Lahey suggests that parents focus on the journey and move the focus away from the end results like grades and test scores.

Josephson says the best thing to do is be there for them. Wait for their reaction and respond accordingly. If they are devastated, show empathy. Give a hug and listen without interruption. Show unconditional love.

And when the storm passes and a moment comes where your child reflects on the situation, you might help them consider what lessons were learned and what they might do differently next time.

Laurie Futterman ARNP is a former Heart Transplant Coordinator at Jackson Memorial Medical Center. She now chairs the science department and teaches gifted middle school science at David Lawrence Jr. K-8 Center. She has three children and lives in North Miami.