Why Allowing Your Children to Fail is a Good Thing

Joan Morris16 Nov, 2016

As a mother, I spend countless hours trying to think of ways I can help my children lives’ feel fulfilled. That can include anything from making special dinners and planning trips to washing and folding clothes and nudging them to complete homework and tasks. As they get older and many of my responsibilities (like chores) evolve into their responsibilities, how do we encourage and allow our children the space to experience and make decisions while they are still at home?

Sharing your own childhood experiences—be it positive or negative—is a great start. Imagine your teenager hearing about a faux pas from your childhood. I’m pretty sure that would keep his or her attention, especially as you share how you wish you would have handled your mistake, or what you learned from not handling it so well. Allowing them the chance to fail can sometimes be the hardest thing to do, but letting them know you’ve been through it as well can help. I’ve begun to shift with my almost-15-year-old son, choosing not to remind him about assignments or packing his gym bag to allow him to face any consequences of not remembering himself.

Sarah on the Alaska Expedition in 2015.

Years ago, at the end of my now-17-year-old daughter’s eighth grade year, I ran into her head of school. She exchanged some really sweet things about Sarah, and then chuckled and said, “Do you know anyone else who shows up to school without their shoes?” Go figure my daughter showed up to school with no shoes. (Side note: Her school was over an hour away, and I dropped her off at our carpool spot with no mention of any missing items.) Once she got to school and realized she did not have shoes—and realizing I would not drive two-plus hours to bring her shoes—she didn’t even bother to call me. Instead, she went into problem-solving mode. She went to the lost and found, took a pair of shoes (that did not fit very well), and wore them for the day. Lucky for her, lost and found actually had shoes. I’m pretty sure she always remembered to grab her shoes from then on (but one never knows). The important thing is, she figured it out, without Mom’s help. When she told me what she had done, I admit I thought it was brilliant.

Our kids feel good when they have the chance to figure it out. They may wobble and bobble in the process, but they build resilience and confidence. It does not have to be perfect—the shoes were not a perfect fit, and they were not what she would have chosen—but they worked, and she appreciated having them.

Thomas (left) at Camp Pinnacle.

Just last week, my son arrived at what was the agreed-upon time for an afternoon school trip. He quickly realized the group had departed 10 minutes earlier—he missed the bus (yikes). He’s the type to strive to do all that is required of him, and he gets easily stressed out in this kind of situation. Evidently, an announcement was made during the all-school meeting earlier in the day outlining the time change that he somehow missed.

He called me and told me what happened, and I asked him what his choices were. He said that he would get a demerit and have to do makeup work, and in the meantime, he would work on his homework. He also decided to follow up with the teacher the following day to apologize, explain what had happened, and to assure his teacher that he would be more careful going forward. I hated that he missed the trip, but I also appreciated that the teacher made it clear that if you are not here on time, there will be consequences. I felt my son showed maturity and, although it was unsettling, he did not fall apart. He did the best he could and managed it. From my vantage point, it felt good to not have to triage the situation during a busy work day. He handled it, learned from it, and moved on.

It is so hard when it just takes a moment or two for us to fix it or remind them and it will save them from so much grief. My mom used to say, “Little kids, little problems. Big kids, big problems.” The consequences certainly grow as they do. I believe allowing our teenagers the space and creating a dialogue where you can to support them, but let them figure things out on their own.


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