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.
Sometimes the best way to teach our kids resilience and independence is to leave them alone—to resist charging in to save the day, even when our internal alarm bells go off. “I’ve had to tie my own hands behind my back with my daughter,” says Ami Foster, a former college admissions coach, ever mindful of the advice she used to give parents of the students she coached. She bit her lip when her daughter (now a senior at Yorktown) came home and worked on art projects last spring instead of studying for her AP tests.
“It didn’t look like what I wanted it to look like,” Foster says, “but she felt that she’d studied sufficiently in class and was comfortable with that. I chose not to add more pressure.” (When her daughter’s scores came back it was clear that, in fact, she had studied sufficiently on her own.)
Molly*, an Arlington mother of two teenage boys, says there have certainly been times when her sons’ definition of “good enough” didn’t measure up to hers. But in the end it wasn’t about her.
“I remember the year my son got a lead role in a show at his school,” Molly says. “He had a solo he didn’t think he could sing because the notes were too high. I was conflicted about letting him fail—onstage, no less—but I backed off and let him figure it out on his own. I didn’t hire a vocal coach. I didn’t advocate with the director to give him a different role.”
On opening night, his voice did crack, she says, “but he still got lots of compliments and kudos. I think he felt good about doing it by himself. That sense of independence was more important to him than hitting the high notes. In the end I was glad I sat back and let it be.”
In retrospect, Molly says, paying attention to both sons’ cues—in all kinds of situations—was key. “I started to back off when it became clear that they were [interpreting] my involvement as me not trusting them to get stuff done on their own. If they said to me, Mom, I got this, what I really needed to do was believe them.”
Sometimes figuring out where to draw the line between being supportive and overbearing is tricky. Sharon* recalls how, in elementary school, her older son was identified early on for his exceptional intelligence. He built his identity around being a “super-smart kid,” she says, “but he also suffers from anxiety and depression, is a disorganized thinker with a touch of ADD, and struggles with processing speed in math.”
Come high school, her son started losing focus and missing assignments. Soon those incidents spiraled into feelings of anxiety and hopelessness over missing work—at which point he would convince himself that it was too late, so why bother. “It was incredibly hard for him to ask for help,” says the Arlington mom, “even after repeated examples of people being willing to help him.”
Shifting the focus of their conversations from grades to mental wellness, Sharon figured out how she could help while still empowering her son to take responsibility for his own assignments.
“I check Canvas with him and help him create schedules for getting his work done, but I have never done his work or asked a teacher to give him more time,” she says. “I have, however, stood over him as he wrote emails to teachers to ask to set up a time to meet. When things spiral, I reach out to the counselor to ask if we can talk or set up a meeting with a teacher to help prioritize late work and make it seem less daunting.”
The emphasis isn’t so much on preventing failure, she says, as it is on recognizing how her son’s emotional challenges operate under the surface, and helping him learn how to counteract those feelings of futility. As he now eyes colleges, Sharon says he’s broadened his view: “I am grateful that he doesn’t think that it’s Ivy or bust, because that sort of pressure might really harm him.”