Allow Your Children to Fail

What is the worst thing a child can experience? It’s not failure, says Gerald Miller. In fact, if you take great pains to make sure your children never taste defeat, you might be robbing them of valuable preparation for service in the world. Gerald notes the pressures we feel from our society to make our children our trophies, and counters with a suggestion: let your children experience both the comfort of your support and the natural consequences of their actions.

This video is excerpted from Gerald’s talk at CASBI 2018, “Evaluating Seven Elements of Your Home’s Influence.”

Allow your children to fail. We have a feel-good culture, and the culture is really bearing in on us, brothers and sisters. Students today seem unable to fail. They need to feel special. They need to believe they’re winners. Parents increasingly are concerned their children feel good enough about themselves.

We can veer off into a very disciplinary hard-line parenting. We can go off into the squishy, feel-good, let’s all just have a great time as a family, and just love each other, and bring grace [kind of parenting], or we could try to bring the two together. It is true that children need a correct self-view, but good self-esteem develops when caring adults identify a child’s strength but also allows them the satisfaction that comes from trying and failing.

By the 1990s, we had determined to boost self-esteem and ensure that children grew up confident and comfortable in a very uncertain world. Public schools initiated many self-esteem programs, and I remember those. Baby on Board signs in minivans led to bumper stickers in the 2000s that read, “My kid is a super kid,” or “My kid made the honor roll.” That is a shift.

Currently, there is tremendous pressure on our schools to admit children below the age of our policy. We want to give our children an advantage, an edge on their peers, because after all, they’re so special.

Now, I’m for promoting a proper self-view. I’m for keeping children safe. By the way, another place: playgrounds. They’re dangerous! Don’t let children up on equipment. They might hurt themselves. This is all part of “Don’t let your child fail, fall, hurt themselves.”

I’m all for keeping children safe. I’m all for providing a good start in life for children. But have we given our children a false sense of security, a false sense of reality, about how life really works? We seem to have highly confident children, but that doesn’t mean they’re well prepared for life.

Many children have never really experienced setbacks. In the past when a student got in trouble or failed a class, parents reinforced the teacher’s grade and insisted their children study harder, and they put things in place to make so that things would turn around.

Today parents often side with their children, and the teacher is the one that gets in trouble. I’m speaking very bluntly and straight. Is that okay? You see, children learn that they can get out of the messes they make of life, because “The adults around me will make excuses and not let me fail.”

Moms and dads, it’s easy to make our children into our trophies. Our children are seen as reflections of our own success. Our child is a winner, so we look better. As teachers, we could be guilty of some of the same things. There are now public school districts [that] are not using red ink to grade papers, because it seems too harsh for the students and causes them “undue stress.”

But how does life actually work? None of us wants to see discouraged children, but not failing is not a solution.

As parents, we tend to see children as fragile, don’t we? Fragile. [There’s a] sense in which that’s true. We talk and talk with them about safe driving, or being safe with guns, or whatever, but they don’t learn common sense just by watching and listening to others talk about it. Children learn by experiencing first hand. Yes, we do our part, but all the talk in the world does not necessarily create what we’re hoping for. They need to take risks and then be supported if they fail.

One of the reasons that we have young people that are not adult until they are 25 is because we have taken away the difficult and made it easy for them when they’re younger. This keeps young people in prolonged adolescence. Just suppose if your child forgot their lunch, you didn’t bring it to school, actually. Let them go hungry. They won’t forget their lunch very often.

Billy was a boy with a home in which his parents let him fail. He was a social outsider. He was not well connected to others in school, all the way through school. He even went to college: not connected there either. His parents worried so much about his social awkwardness in school and his tendency to withdraw, but they continued to encourage him to explore all kinds of ideas to find out what he might do with his life after high school. They made it okay to fail, and fail he did.

But we also benefit immensely from Bill Gates following his success after all those failures.

Homes that allow children to fail and learn from their mistakes give their children a real gift.

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