Why Teens Who Don’t Fail Won’t Reach Their Potential

 In Positive Parenting

“Failure is the mother of success” goes an old Chinese saying, yet its relevance is strongly felt today. As parents, we can’t go anywhere these days without hearing or reading about the importance of failure for our children, particularly teens – how important it is for their development and why, therefore, we have to encourage them to fail, and fail often.

Despite its perceived importance, failure still feels a little uncomfortable. Doesn’t it? No parent really wants their child to “fail”. Ultimately, we want to help our teens be successful in whatever path they choose and in whatever endeavour they put their mind to. We want them to be happy, healthy, and well rounded. We want to help them avoid the negative consequences of poor choices – of performing badly at school, choosing the wrong friends, or worse. And when they fail, there is that naturally tendency to want to help soften the blow.  But there is a big difference between giving teens the space to fail so they learn and grow, and being a “failure”. Indeed, research has shown that “helicopter parenting” and “lawnmower parenting” (where a parent tries to “smooth out the bumps”) does the complete opposite of its good intentions: it holds kids back.

Jessica Lahey, author of “The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed”, perhaps explains it best. Such parents “bulldoze every uncomfortable bump and obstacle out of their way, clearing the manicured path we hoped would lead to success and happiness.” In doing so, they deprive children of the most important lessons of childhood. “The setbacks, mistakes, miscalculations, and failures we have shoved out of our children’s way are the very experiences that teach them how to be resourceful, persistent, innovative and resilient citizens of this world.”

Developing the ability to recover from adversity – coined as “having grit” – has been found by Angela Duckworth and her team at Penn University to be crucial for later benchmarks of success. Their study shows that “grit”, developed through facing failures and overcoming them, was a stronger predictor of completing high school, making the final rounds of the National Spelling Bee, completing the Army Special Operations Forces selection course, or staying married (for men, at least), than intelligence scores or physical aptitude.

When viewed from a lens of opportunity, or as a valuable gift in disguise, failure becomes easier to digest. In fact, let’s do away with “failure” all together shall we and call it stumbling: We need to let our teens stumble in life and get uncomfortable sometimes, even if it’s uncomfortable for us.

And here’s why: life can get uncomfortable. We all know that. Our responsibility as parents, therefore, is not to shield our kids from the realities of life but provide them with a safe simulator where they can experience failure, and learn to adapt, innovate, and ultimately get out of problems themselves – while we watch at a safe distance, of course.

Indeed, studies are showing that kids that don’t fail, won’t reach their potential.


Why kids that never fail won’t reach their potential

A 2012 study out of the Queensland University of Technology surveyed more than 100 school counselors and child psychologists in Australia. They asked simple open-ended questions about whether they’d seen “overparenting” and asked them to give examples. Over 27% had seen “many” examples and over 90% said they’d seen at least some instances of the phenomenon, citing examples like parents carrying children who were old enough to walk, managing academic deadlines for their child, or a mother not letting her 17-year-old catch the train on his own. Many examples related to the parent not wanting the child to face the unpleasant consequences of failure.

Respondents in this study perceived the ultimate outcomes for the child as “poor resilience, a sense of entitlement, high anxiety levels, poor life skills, and an inadequate sense of responsibility.” Other research has shown similar outcomes.

For example, a later 2013 study in the Journal of Child and Family Studies found that “helicopter parenting” can lead to anxiety and depression in college students, and decreased feelings of autonomy and competence. “Parents are sending an unintentional message to their children that they are not competent,” says Holly Schiffrin, lead author of the study and an associate professor of psychology at the University of Mary Washington.

But, as Schriffrin points out, more tragically, without having the space to make mistakes, teens never learn how to solve problems. “When adult children don’t get to practice problem-solving skills, they can’t solve these problems in the future,” she explains.

Kids who are never allowed to fail learn instead to leave situations where failure is possible. They don’t take chances and stay within their comfort zone, leaving them at high risk of never unlocking their potential.

They also miss out on crucial opportunities to be creative – something that can only occur in an environment where you’re able to be vulnerable and make mistakes. And yet, for some of the world’s most successful people today, like Steve Jobs and JK Rowling, failing was an integral part of their story.  


What it really means to let your children fail 

But where is the line between overparenting, and supporting from a safe distance? How, as a parent, do you simply stand by as your child falters?

The best model I’ve come across is the “Lighthouse parenting” analogy, promoted by Dr Ginsburg, a well-known doctor specialising in teens, in his book “Raising Kids to Thrive.”

According to Dr. Ginsburg, parents should be “lighthouses” for their children. He explains: “Stable beacons of light on the shoreline from which they can measure themselves against. Role models. We should look down at the rocks and make sure they do not crash against them. We should look into the water and prepare them to ride the waves, and we should trust in their capacity to learn to do so.”

Being a “lighthouse parent” begins by letting your children know they are loved unconditionally, then setting your expectations on character, not performance. “You hold them to the expectation of morality and character you know lies within them,” explains Dr. Ginsburg. And most importantly, strive to strike a balance between protection and guidance.

Kids, particularly teens, know that it’s going to take your help for them to thrive. But let them communicate to you what those needs and wants are – don’t dictate it for them. Give them the space to mess up once in a while, and learn to get themselves out of it – while you stand patiently and ready at the shore.


Learn more

Jessica Lahey, The Gift of Failure: How the best parents learn to let go so their child can succeed 

Angela Duckworth, The key to success? Grit Ted Talks Education 2013

Linda Kaplan Thaler & Robin KovalGrit to Great: How Perseverance, Passion and Pluck Take You From Ordinary to Extraordinary.” 


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