Teaching Our Kids to Fail


by Angela Hedges

A twelve-year-old aspiring scientist watches his latest invention go awry, covering his new family in peanut butter & jelly. The boy hangs his head and mutters that he can’t do anything right. Before he can continue the family enthusiastically congratulates him on his spectacular failure. Failures teach us much more than successes, they explain. If you never fail you’ll never truly achieve great things. Inspired, the young boy decides to improve rather than abandon his invention.

This is a scene from the animated film Meet the Robinsons. It’s a movie with flying cars, talking robots and time travel, and yet the above scene is probably the most unrealistic part of the story. What parent celebrates failure? Even when we remain positive about our children’s missteps we usually do so by encouraging them to keep reaching for success. “You’ll get it right eventually,” we tell them, or “Almost! Keep trying.” When they finally succeed our enthusiastic praise drowns out this weak encouragement. Kids know the score. Failures are mistakes. Doing things right is what counts.

How we praise our kids makes a real difference in how they learn and act. Too much praise can distort a child’s motivation. Instead of trying to complete a task or find an answer, they angle for our approval. Often they aren’t even sure what right is. They simply look to a parent or a teacher to tell them if they’ve succeeded. That becomes all that matters. Understanding what they are doing is secondary, or may not matter at all, as long as they manage to keep doing things right in our eyes. Failing in this case is not a learning opportunity but a tragedy to be avoided at all costs. Though they are capable of much more, they play it safe and stick to the easy, the known rather than take on a challenge.

So what’s a parent to do? I’ve found plenty of resources that shed light on the problem (most notably How Children Fail by John Holt) but it’s less clear what the solution is. I almost wrote “what the right thing to do is” there. Here I am writing about celebrating failures and I end up seeking that perfect answer! Leading by example may be the best we can do. Parents are going to have some spectacular failures. If we can act like messing up is a good thing, a chance to improve, maybe our kids will too.

To start, I need to hover less as they develop basic skills so they can explore on their own. The coolest things my son did as a baby came from him alone, like strumming a guitar, twirling a bamboo pole like a ninja, and winning a dance contest he didn’t know he was in. Had I been too eager to jump in I’d probably have derailed the activity and prevented the breakthrough. A baby doesn’t need me to get excited when he strums the guitar for the first time. The sound is the reward, and he should get to revel in that for himself.

When I play with the kids I need to just enjoy it and lay off on the constant words of encouragement. If they start to show interest in something I should let the accomplishment – or failure – stand for itself. So maybe instead of being taught how to do everything, they’ll invent their own ways of exploring the world.

And if I fail? That’s me learning how to be a better parent.

Angela Hedges put aside a career in social media to pursue her passions: family and writing. As a mother she is inspired to explore the struggles and joys found in the ever-changing landscape of modern parenting. Her blog With Fail chronicles her journey as a writer. Angela also dead-blogs about the remarkable life of her grandmother on the aptly-named My Dead Grandmother.