In the first pages of Being Wrong, Kathryn Schulz writes, “In our collective imagination, error is associated not just with shame and stupidity but also with ignorance, indolence, psychopathology, and moral degeneracy.” This cultural terror of messing up, combined with modern modes of parenting and schooling obsessed with narrow versions of academic and career “success,” are making students more than risk-averse.

Books like How to Raise an Adult and Teach Your Children Well say kids are coming to college “underconstructed,” at best unsure of who they are and where they fit, at worst anxious and depressed, because their parents have protected them from the uncomfortable and unacceptable state of being wrong. Focused on getting the grades or winning the game and excused from helping out around the house, these children have internalized the pressure, and it’s morphed into a monster that paralyzes kids in their ability to take risks, screw up, find out the consequences and learn from their mistakes.

Parent and educator Jessica Lahey, author of the new book The Gift of Failure, wants parents (and teachers) to back off. She said it’s time for adults to do the responsible thing and let the children fail. Trying something and failing, she writes, is how children learn and make discoveries about themselves and the world around them. This applies to unloading the dishwasher as well as the science fair. Becoming autonomous gives children pride in themselves and their abilities, and makes them independent thinkers and doers who can cope with the ups and downs of life.

But it will be messy, and adults should expect as much. To Lahey’s credit, The Gift of Failure defiantly rejects the binary choices of either “triumphant or bumbling adulthood” as end goals, and sees growing up as a series of peaks and valleys with lots of time to figure things out in between. Instead, she offers practical advice, steeped in the latest research, on how to let kids find their own way as parents and teachers guide them, the key word being guide — not instruct, dictate, or enable. Giving kids autonomy may or may not make them a big “success,” but the research supports that it will make kids happier, less anxious and depressed, and more fulfilled to work towards agency in their own lives.

Lahey taught middle school for more than a dozen years, and said that in that period of time, she watched as kids went from cautious to take risks to too terrified to even make a move — write a sentence, for example — without considering what people might think or how it would affect their grade.

“The thing I began to notice was not the fear of an ‘F’, it was the fear of any mistake,” she said. “It’s not that students couldn’t get to a final draft, they couldn’t get even their ideas down. From a teacher’s point of view, that’s a nightmare! If they can’t take a risk, then certainly they aren’t raising their hand with an I-wanna-try-this-idea-out kind of thing.”

Many educators already know this, but what to do about it? Educators can play a crucial part in helping kids to get comfortable with failure, which Lahey calls “autonomy-supportive teaching” and goes hand-in-hand with “autonomy-supportive parenting.” She says there are ways educators can encourage parents to let go, and here are a few:

Encourage parents to think of raising a child as a long-haul job

Stop bringing forgotten homework to school, Lahey tells the parents of her students. And stop stressing over how your daughter will do on next week’s quiz: instead, focus on what your daughter can learn if she does it all herself, without nagging and pestering and pressure. If she does indeed fail the quiz, she may be forced to ask herself what went wrong, and what she could do better next time. Parenting is a long-haul job, Lahey says, and parents and teachers need to think more about what’s going to make kids happy in the long term. In the case of the quiz, the short-term goal is getting an ‘A,’ but the long-term goal of self-sufficiency eclipses that minor ‘A’ by a long shot.

“It’s so freeing!” she said. “You can stop worrying about the stupid details of the moment-to-moment junk, and start focusing on the big things. Just think about where your kid was one year ago today. They’re amazing!” Lahey said she’s not sure if adults just forget, or worry that’s not true. She suspects, though, that parents don’t see the amazing growth in kids because they aren’t given the opportunity to show it very often.

Focus on Process Instead of Product

Lahey confesses this is a tricky balance, especially since schools today are inherently — almost obsessively — focused on product (and may inadvertently be contributing to parents’ anxieties over academic success). But there are ways to get around that, she says.

Adjust expectations (and grades) to make room for real student work. In the book, Lahey asks a kindergarten teacher what her kids can do that their parents don’t think they can. She responds: “Everything!” In autonomy-supportive teaching, work that students plan and orchestrate themselves will look like — well, like a kid did it. That means no more science projects worthy of their own Nobel. “Teachers need to move their expectations as well. Our lines for where grades should be have creeped up anyway, based on our expectations for what the product should look like. Our expectations have been skewed by the work of the parents.”

Lahey knows that teachers love to hear that a parent has decided to make the child more responsible for his own learning: “If you tell your teacher you’re making the move to more autonomy-supportive parenting, and to please hold your child to consequences without letting the kid off the hook? If you ask the teacher to help you through this — that this is the only way your child is going to learn? Just knowing when a parent is interested in supporting a student’s voice and ability to speak up for themselves: a teacher will kiss you on the lips for that!”

Back away from the parent portal

One of the biggest pitfalls to autonomy-supportive parenting, Lahey says, are the parent portal websites, with access to up-to-the-minute feedback about scores and grades. Lahey and her husband decided to forgo the parent portal for their older child. They handed the password over to their son, telling him he’d need to let them know if he was in academic trouble. Some of her friends were shocked, “as if we were defaulting on our parental duty,” she writes. “I disagree. Checking in on children’s grades is a type of surveillance, which is one of the forms of control and is often mentioned in the research as an enemy of autonomy and intrinsic motivation.”

For parents who decide to forego the parent portal (or only check it occasionally), Lahey recommends sending a note to teachers about the decision, explaining that your student is now responsible for her own communication information.

Consider the Fear of Failure May Affect More Kids Than You Think

Some educators have called out the rash of overparenting books as only written for a few upper-class parents; some have called The Overstressed American Child “a myth.” Many students are well-acquainted with failure, both their own personal shortcomings as well as the systemic failures of their schools and homes. While Lahey openly admits that The Gift of Failure doesn’t apply to everyone, she cautions that it’s not just the 1% who are terrified of their kids failing: “What I did find out by talking to teachers, is that it’s far more pervasive than we thought,” Lahey said. “We’re talking about a big chunk, a lot of middle class kids are getting the same kind of pressure,” as kids at the top. Many times, she said, the pressure’s even greater if a family doesn’t have the means to pay for college — especially when it comes to sports and scholarships.

Fear of failure destroys the love of learning

In chapter 2, Lahey relates the story of one of her students, capable and intelligent Marianna, who has “sacrificed her natural curiosity and and love of learning at the altar of achievement, and it’s our fault.”

We taught her that her potential is tied to her intellect, and her intellect is more important than her character. We taught her to protect her academic and extracurricular perfection at all costs and that it’s better to quit when things get challenging rather than risk marring that perfection.

Above all else, we have taught her to fear failure, and that fear has destroyed her love of learning.

And this is the real shame: fear of failure taints the waters of learning, keeping kids from taking risks. Making failure normal — even celebrated — Lahey contends, may be uncomfortable in the short-term, but in the long haul makes for happier, more confident kids.

  • Adam Buchbinder

    Thank you for writing about this most timely topic. You offer numerous constructive strategies that will catalyze thoughtful parenting and inspire intrinsic motivation among students. Alfie Kohn would be proud.

    As a young teacher and a recent college graduate, I can speak to these kinds of student anxieties. I cite two major impetuses for the fear of risk taking in student learning: the college process and employer qualifications. Both institutions privilege quantitive measures of learning (standardized test scores and GPA) over whether a student has ventured outside his or her comfort zone. A poor grade on a transcript regardless of risk taking warrants explanation rather than adoration.

    I am also interested in the notion of risk from an agency perspective. Who has the agency to designate failure as an asset or a liability? In the startup world, failure is heralded. If you haven’t failed multiple times in your ventures it means you haven’t taken great enough risk. But from the perspective of a fledgling employee or a maturing student, risk taking and failure can place you on a precarious path.

    If we are serious about encouraging genuine intellectual exploration, institutions of higher learning and the employers that hire them must rethink their success criteria.

    • boatkitten

      Thank you for this response. We are just now experiencing this pitfall to being parents that want our child to grow. Our oldest son was very independent, but the second son was far more introverted and felt happier at home, reading a book rather than organizing with frinds or sports.
      A language learning disorder meant he also got some help at school, but we tried our best to let him navigate the system of seeking his own help at high school — which resulted in several failures early on. By senior year we discovered that the two C grades earned during his early years had now destroyed his chances to be accepted into academic honors (needing a 3.75 GPA overall and only having a 3.69), and the worst came when he missed a $18,000 scholarship because those two C’s pulled him down from top 10% in his class to top 12%.
      And allowing a child to stay home to read instead of forcing them to play a sport eliminates a vast majority of scholarships because too much attention is now being paid to the “Student Athlete” scholarships (by far the most common scholarship).
      Some parents – and students – will reach graduation without even realizing the importance of demanding perfection until its far too late. Especially parents who will be footing a huge college bill that they can’t afford, and are now unable to offer the education they had hoped to provide for their child.

      • Thomas Frank-Mueller

        I’d like to see your stats on your notion that athletic scholarships far outpace non athletic scholarships. I don’t think you’re even remotely accurate on that point.

        • ahfclass

          I don’t think that’s the point of the comment, and the comment speaks to personal experience at one high school rather than state or national norms. The point made here perfectly illustrates the fact that “making mistakes” and failing have more costly consequences than the article reveals.

  • AjaxinCharlotte

    It’s not often I read an article about education that completely matches my experience in the classroom, but this one does. Outstanding job, Ms. Korbey! Thank you for writing this valuable piece.

  • April Tanguay

    Thank you!!! I in teaching middle school for nearly 25 years and struggle more and more with children and parents who cannot understand that failure can lead to positive growth. I have been successful in helping my students to understand this idea, by encouraging them to see grades as a process, not a product.
    In June, I passed back an exam with a grade of a 74. The student remarked “Awww… I thought I did better than that.” I replied “___, in October, you were getting 30s and 40s. You have DOUBLED that on a final! Can you imagine what your grades will be like if you keep this up?!” “Yeah!”, he replied. “I can’t wait for next year! I’m gonna get even better! Then, in 8th grade, even more!!”. Success.

  • Sarita Malik

    This philosophy only works if kids understand that education and future success are interrelated. I disagree in the hands off approach in terms of expectation setting. Yes, children should learn to step up and take responsibility, but parents also need to holds kids accountable for not alerting parents to academic trouble and lack of effort. Kids should earn privileges like cell phones and movies, not have everything handed to them indiscriminately. Earning and work ethic are the real life lesson to learn.

  • Clay

    I would love to see a version if this written for kids, extolling the benefits of failing.

  • Nigel Tolley

    Reading this, I agree with the article, but I, too, had the same thought as boatkitten below, about how letting a child fail just once (and how is a C grade really a failure?) can carry over into destroying future averaged ranking.

    I got occasional A’s. Mostly in my sciences. Everything else, by the grade inflated US theories of a 4.0 being the minimum standard, I failed. Fortunately I’m not in the US. The A grades that counted got me the university place and I got myself a mid-range honours degree in a very tough specialist area – which I use barely ever, since I’m now a locksmith, having left the world of aerospace.

    As regards fear of failure? I see it in my 4yo, and in the kids at the Makerspace I started. Give them an idea and no instructions and many, to start with, are stuck!

    “What if I get it wrong?”
    “You are painting a small box, you can’t get it wrong – it is whatever you want it to be.”

    They mostly prove themselves capable within a few minutes. 🙂

  • Mary Childerston

    Thank you, Holly, for a great article. As a Montessori directress, I see children as young as 3 and 4 years old so afraid of making mistakes, they won’t touch our wonderful classroom materials. It takes months of carefully guided strategies to help these kiddos even begin to overcome their fears of failure. I am sending your article to as many folks as I can. Thank you, again, from the bottom of my at times very discouraged heart.

  • Clara Lieu

    I am so glad to see this article about the importance of failure in the learning process. I’ve taught studio art at the college level for over a decade, and when I’ve taught first semester freshman drawing courses in the past, it takes me more than half a semester to convince students that it’s “okay” if every single project they do isn’t a grand masterpiece. I find that that unrelenting pressure to “succeed” in every project that I see in many first year students who are just coming out of high school completely paralyzes their ability to experiment and make progress, which is so critical when studying any area of the arts. I have also seen that students become so worried about with the final outcome, and whether they will “succeed” that they don’t invest themselves into the process, which then chokes their ability to really understand the process. I have had many students tell me over the years that their worst project of the semester was their most valuable one. Thank you so much for writing this article, I wish that there was more emphasis on how important failure is to learning!

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Author

Holly Korbey

Holly Korbey's work on parenting and education has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Babble, Brain, Child Magazine, and others. She lives in Nashville with her family. Follow her on Twitter: @HKorbey

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