Why You Should Let Your Child Fail

The Benefits of Natural Consequences
by James Lehman, MSW

Watching your child fail makes you feel helpless, angry and sad. You worry about everything from your child’s self-esteem and social development to their future success. James Lehman explains that while it’s natural for parents to worry about failure, there are times when it can be productive for kids—and a chance for them to change.

"Failure is an opportunity to get your child to look at himself."

Parents tell me all the time that they fear their child will fail in life. When I ask them what specifically they’re afraid of their child failing, usually it’s school-related—a certain subject, or perhaps a grade level. The thinking of most parents is, once you start failing in school, it’s hard to catch up. For many parents, it creates a crisis in the family when their child fails in a subject or gets bad grades. And I understand that.

I’d like to talk about the word “crisis” for a minute. It’s often stated that the Chinese symbol for “crisis” is a combination of the symbols for “danger” and “opportunity.” I think that parents see the danger part very clearly in a crisis, but often they don’t see the opportunity: your child has the opportunity to learn an important lesson. The lesson might be about the true cost of cutting corners, what happens when he doesn’t do his best at something, or what the real consequences are for not being productive. It might be a chance for your child to learn the cost of misleading and lying to his parents about how much work he’s actually done or what grades he’s receiving. I think if your child misleads and he gets a failing grade, that’s the natural consequence for his behavior and he should experience the discomfort of his choices.

Many of the parents I see are uncomfortable with this at first. Instead of allowing their child to fail, they try to get the teacher to change the grade. Believe me, if a parent is in the martyr role, they’re going to go up and fight for their child in school—and they’re going to believe they’re right. But sadly, what their child is going to learn is that they don’t have to take responsibility for their ineffective behavior—that somebody else is going to fight for them. Let me be clear: when you try to change the actions of people around your child so he won’t feel disappointed or upset, your child is not going to learn the lesson you imagine he’s going to learn. And not only that, he’s also not going to learn math, or science, or whatever it is he’s been avoiding. Worst of all, he’s not even going to learn to not be duplicitous in the future. What he is going to learn is that “It’s OK. If I screw up enough, Mom will take care of it.” Or “Dad has more power than the teacher, so he can take care of it.”

Once again we see the danger of your child thinking that power can solve his problems. When that conclusion is made, he learns that power can replace responsibility. In a healthier equation, schoolwork problems are dealt with by the child who gradually takes more responsibility in doing his homework. The power emanates from the responsibility-taking. But if a parent goes and fights with the school and gets the teacher to change the grade, then the power is coming from the wrong place. Your child is going to learn that power trumps responsibility. In fact, he will learn that the power of being manipulative and threatening is more valuable than actually being accountable and doing the work competently.

Many parents have reasons to justify their defense of their child. They may cite the unfairness of the school system, their child’s learning difficulties or behavioral problem, the principal’s attitude, or the prior history of their child at the school. I understand that those things can be very real. It’s easier to fight with the teacher than it is to fight with your child. It’s just that simple. And it’s easier to change the teacher—or even the school rules—than to get your child to change.

I think if your child didn’t do his homework, ignored a project that was due, or lied and misled you or his teacher, the fact remains that it’s his responsibility to experience the natural consequences of his actions. And the biggest consequence is that your child has failed. To me, this is not the end of the world, it’s a lesson, just like anything else designed to help him see that he’s not making the grade. Receiving a failing grade is a gauge of how he’s doing, and if he’s failed something, he needs to solve the problem responsibly.

A word about lying: another thing you should ask yourself is if your child is being dishonest or manipulative about his homework, what else is he being dishonest and manipulative about? And when he’s supposed to be studying after school, what is he really doing? This opens up other questions because we know if somebody is duplicitous in one area, that behavior can spread to other areas quickly. Failing a subject in school is one thing, sudden changes in performance across the board is another.

I believe if your child fails a subject or even fails the year, if you’re addressing the problem, you’re starting to solve it. It’s an opportunity to get your child to make some changes. Failure is an opportunity to get your child to look at himself. Part of parents’ sensitivity to this is that if their child fails, they feel like they’ve failed, too. So they’re hyper-sensitive to that, and I understand. It’s tough to be a parent who works hard and does the best he or she can, and then have your kids fail. You want to say, “What more can I do?” But the question really is, “What more can my child do?” It’s not “What am I not doing as a parent?” It’s “What is he not doing as a student?” That’s the right question to ask yourself.

Continue Reading Benefits of Letting your child Feel Discomfort

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