The Benefits of Failure

A few weeks ago, my daughter tested for her yellow belt at tai kwan do.  I sat and watched her and the other novices break boards with their kicks, being permitted as many attempts as necessary to achieve success and receive their next belt color.  I watched the parents videotape the moment and clap and “aaah” in amazement and pride as they heard and saw the board break. 

And then, the intermediate and advanced students tested for their belts.  For them to achieve the next belt color, they were given only two attempts to break the board with their particular skilled kick.  If they failed, they would need to wait another few months before they would be given the chance to try again.  

There was a palpable stress in the air as the room waited to see if these students would pass.  But, before they were permitted to begin, the master of the dojo introduced their testing with the following words, “These students have worked hard to get to this day.  But, they only get two attempts to pass.  They might fail.  And, that will be ok.  Failure is good too because in life, we sometimes work hard and still fail.  And, we have to live through that and get back up to try another day.  So, let’s give them our respect and attention.”  One child passed, and one failed. 

What this dojo master taught the children that day was the attribute of resilience, also known as “grit.”  We, as parents, want our children to be resilient.  But, how would we have felt if it had been our child who failed the test that day?  Our first instinct might have been to try to console our child with words like, “It’s ok.  You were so close.  If you hadn’t just slipped you would have had it. I think I heard it crack.  He should have counted that.  Let’s get out of here.” While we want our child to bounce back, a part of us is crushed.  We wish that they didn’t have to experience the disappointment, embarrassment, and — well —the failure.

Yet, all of the experts tell us that allowing children to feel these feelings that result from experiencing failure are good for them.  There are scores of books on resilience and grit.  So, why do we resist?

Part of the reason has to do with how difficult it is for us to watch someone we love suffer.  We know the sadness and humiliation that can come with failure and we don’t want to watch our children bear that pain when there is something that we can do about it.  Part of it has to do with the challenge of bearing our own disappointment and embarrassment that our child was the one who failed.  While we may not like to acknowledge it, we invest a lot of emotional capital in our children and sometimes we are challenged to separate our own feelings from theirs.  And, part of it comes from losing sight of our long-term goal for our kids to become adults who take risks, even if it means falling down, and then getting back up to try again.  As Rocky says in Rocky Balboa, “… it ain't about how hard you hit. It's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward…”

Our parental instincts are almost police-like; we honor our sacred duty to protect and defend.  Doing so makes us feel like we are doing our job of parenting well.  Helicopter and snowplow parenting are borne of this motivation.  Yet, if we smooth the path in front of our child so that they never stumble, what will they do when we aren’t there and they hit a bump in the road of life?  Further, what does it say to our child when we handle things for them either before or after the fact?  Might it give them the impression that we don’t believe they can handle the situation themselves?  That worse than being unsuccessful, they are incapable?

We clearly do not want or intend that message to come across to them.  So, while they are young, and still in our homes, let’s allow them to fail.  Show them how to appreciate failure as a learning opportunity that provides information for future success.  Be next to them as they process their disappointment, showing empathy and bestowing confidence in their ability to figure it out. Be their cheerleader as they get back up and try again, incorporating the sometimes painful lessons that living life can bring.  And, give them the message that they are capable of handling it all —  even without us.

Laura Goldman