Why Can’t We Let Our Kids Fail?
It's not easy watching your child cope with a bad grade, a broken friendship or being cut from the team. But intervening can be worse.
Our tolerance for mediocrity and imperfection isn’t what it once was. Casey Robinson, principal of H-B Woodlawn Secondary Program in Arlington (she’s also a member of its Class of 1995), says she’s witnessed a gradual and somewhat insidious evolution. “There was certainly more failure in Arlington 25 years ago,” Robinson says. “Part of it is this refusal to let kids fail—or even get a B or a C. There is this pressure from the parents for a perfect transcript. So now the grades kids get don’t actually reflect their ability or work ethic. As a result, kids who have gotten straight A’s and done all the things they’re supposed to do don’t get into the [colleges] they want because those A’s don’t mean what they used to. The things they’re striving for become false measures.
“It’s our brightest kids who end up cheating,” she adds, “because they feel like they have so much on the line—that if you get a B, that will be the end for you.”
Founded in 1971, H-B Woodlawn is a public school, but offers an alternative academic model in which students have more control over their education. (The school is co-governed by students and faculty, and students have a say in the curriculum.) Students are encouraged to have a voice and to figure things out for themselves. And yet even in this environment of empowerment, Robinson sees parents wanting to shield their kids from disappointment—like the predictable flurry of emails at the end of the quarter asking what their students can do to get an A in a given class.
“Allowing your child to struggle is an essential part of the learning process,” Robinson says. “But there’s this fear among parents that if they let their kids fail now, it will keep them from getting into college. They’re okay with allowing their kids to struggle in theory, but it’s much harder to do in real life.”
Especially when there are so many resources out there to prevent so-called failure—resources that friends and neighbors are readily tapping into.
Michelle Scott, founder of the Tutoring Club of McLean, says she has preschool parents asking for help in giving their kids a leg up over their rising-kindergarten peers—or at the very least, making sure they are on pace with certain benchmarks: “Sometimes they have an older sibling who struggled with reading and they want to ensure that the younger child doesn’t have the same challenge.”
Scott says she coaches parents to focus on the work rather than the grades, starting when kids are young. For parents wanting to prep their kids for tests like the CogAT (Cognitive Abilities Test)—which is administered in elementary school and used to identify students who might benefit from advanced placement—she emphasizes that no amount of test prep will fast-track a kid who just isn’t ready for advanced classes.
“The messaging some kids are absorbing from their parents and their peers is that if they’re not in honors or intensified classes, it feels like they’re with the ‘dumb kids,’ which is a shame,” Scott says. “The older they get, the harder it is for parents to let them fail, once it starts to affect their high school transcript. We have high-schoolers taking five AP classes—which is great if that’s what they want to do. But if a parent is pushing a kid to do that, it causes so much extra anxiety during years that are already so stressful. Their grades start to suffer. They may start to lie to hide those failures and won’t ask for help, which can lead to anxiety and depression or entitlement and helplessness,” she says.
Northern Virginia has a lot of smart kids. But they are still kids. “When we hear that our kids are smart [or talented], our instinct is to push them to their maximum potential,” says Kathy Essig, a longtime executive functioning coach and co-founder of The Study Pro in McLean. Restraint is hard—especially when it means taking a season off from a travel sport or opting not to take high school-level math in middle school.
As an educational coach, Essig helps students whose executive functioning skills—the ones that help you plan, analyze, organize and prioritize both short- and long-term tasks—are out of sync with the academic expectations put on them. She says she works in tandem with parents to figure out where to set limits on their parental “helpfulness.”
“So much of what kids are experiencing today is that the academic rigor has outstripped their processing skills,” she says. “Intellect is part of it, but there’s also the ability to interpret directions, complete work in a given amount of time, perform analysis. All of those are executive functioning skills. Your brain has to mature to the point where you can perform them. It’s maturational. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with our kids, it’s that we’re not giving them the time to grow up that we had and that our parents had.
In today’s intensely competitive academic landscape, however, the tendency isn’t to give it time. It’s to provide scaffolding.
“That’s where all the tutors come in,” Essig says. “Then the danger is that kids have support all along the way and then get to college and flunk out. Or there’s a huge rise in anxiety as soon as they’re on their own. I’ve worked with three students who fell apart in college—three kids who attempted suicide. You have to ask yourself: What are we pushing toward?
“We have to get the idea out of our heads that our kids’ accomplishments are something for us to brag about at cocktail parties,” Essig continues. “You have to parent the child you have, not the dream you had the day they were born. A child will try to live up to their parents’ expectations, but you don’t want that to overwhelm their sense of self. You need to make sure they understand that they still have value, even if something doesn’t go as planned. If you let them land where they’re supposed to, it will be much better for them.”
Donna*, an Arlington mom whose son recently graduated from private school, remembers being taken aback when his adviser laid out all the options for tutors, test prep and admissions coaches his junior year. The idea of professionally polishing his college applications felt wrong. “I’d rather have my son get in on his own merit. Plus, it doesn’t really matter where you go to college,” she says, noting that she and her business partner earn the same salary, even though her partner was an Ivy Leaguer and she attended her state university.
Furthermore, you’re not fooling anyone when you do your kids’ work for them or speak on their behalf, says Ben Sessions, an Arlington dad of two who conducts admissions interviews for an elite New England university. That college interview? Recruiters can tell when a passion has been dictated by a parent—versus one that represents a student’s genuine interest.
“After spending an hour with a kid, you can tell what’s a reflection of them versus what they’ve been told to say,” Sessions says. “Kids who follow a path set out by their parents tend to have less-interesting things to say because the path wasn’t necessarily their own. When kids are internally driven, it’s pretty apparent—they’ve got that sparkle in their eye.”
Take, for example, community service. “For the kid whose parents sent them to Costa Rica for a week to do a one-off service project, the conversation around service might not be as authentic,” he says. “To make an impact, you don’t need to fly to Ghana. It can be more interesting to talk about the ways they contribute locally [versus trips] that are more like tourism.”
Parents should also keep in mind that a 17- or 18-year-old is not a finished product, Sessions says. Teens need space to figure out what they want to pursue—even if they’re not deciding as quickly as their parents would like them to.
“If you give kids license to fail, to try something and see where it goes, it may not be 100 percent what you want. But we need to give kids room to develop that voice, that passion,” he says. “What I’m looking for is something that will distinguish them from other candidates—sustained interest in X and how they’ve pursued it and what they’re going to continue to do, as well as their maturity level. Are they going to be ready for whatever college is going to throw at them?”