Why are we so afraid to let our kids fail?

Step away from the Valentines

Working on Valentine’s cards for his classmates, it hit me just how easy it is to impose my will on my kids. It’s really hard for me to keep my mouth shut.

Writing is a developing skill for 4.5 year old Keener. I wouldn’t say he loves it but he doesn’t hate it either. He’s somewhere in the middle. As a teacher, I am constantly checking myself trying to strike the right balance. I have taught hundreds of kids writing which makes the mistakes I see him make all the more glaring. However, I am not his teacher. I am his mother. And finding that balance is key.

The thought of writing out all the names of his classmates was overwhelming him. His teachers suggested doing a few each day as this was supposed to be a “fun” task – not a painful one. Such a good reminder! However, we also live at a time when Valentine’s are due at school with plenty of time for the “germs” to die before they are handed out, so time was running out.

Keener decided he wanted to write everyone’s initials. Was that my first choice? Nope. But it worked for him. He also decided he wanted to write his own initials instead of his full name. Again, not my first choice — but also not my Valentines.

Lastly, he wanted to glue a single “treasure” on each of the envelopes. Why would anyone want to use Valentine’s themed stickers when you could attach random gems and beads you found at school using way too much glue?

My type A personality was shouting on the inside, yet I fought to keep all of those thoughts in my head.

Fostering Independence

If we want our kids to become independent, we must give them opportunities to flex those independent muscles. By imposing our unsolicited wisdom, we end up inadvertently sending them the exact opposite messages; they aren’t capable, their ideas aren’t good, and our way is better (but no, it really is). It doesn’t take them long to realize we are micromanaging their every move.

I remember reading somewhere if you ask your kid to make their bed, don’t go behind them and remake it the right way. They will quickly realize, I don’t need to make it because my mom is going to redo it anyway. This is where our well intended efforts backfire: Since I don’t do it the right way, I”ll just stop making it. Without meaning to, we have completely undermined their efforts.

Let them fail

As I mentioned in last week’s post, we are inadvertently creating dependent children. I keep coming back to this quote from Julie Lythcott-Haims that I cited last week:

“Kids learn and grow, precisely by trying new things. Being allowed to fail, picking themselves up and trying again.” 

Julie Lythcott-Haim

Why are we so afraid of our kids failing? “Helicopter parenting” hovering over them or “lawn mower parenting” clearing the way ahead so they never even stumble — is this the goal? Forget when they are 18 and go off to college. When they go to preschool, how are they going to cope when it’s not their turn to be line leader?

Jessica Lahey says in The Gift of Failure, “The quickest way to kill off your child’s interest in a game, topic, or experiment is to impose your will on her learning.” I wrote a post last October after I watched how Keener exited the playground. Instead of walking through the wide open gate like Grace and I did, he climbed over the fence. Since he left the park when I asked, there really was no problem. Similar to the Valentines, he completed them — in his own way. Yet in both of these situations, I had to work hard not to impose my will.

Clear Expectations + Choice

In both of these examples, I had set out clear expectations — leave the park and finish your Valentines. Keener completed both of them. Was it the way I would have? Absolutely not. Giving him space and creativity to complete tasks is hard for me as I generally have an opinion about the best way to complete them. However, learning to step back (and stop talking) has been reinforcing as I have seen him rise to the occasion. Further, he comes up with some seriously creative ideas that I previously was inadvertently squashing.

Lahey continues, “As soon as your child is capable of working on his own, and maybe even a little bit before is completely independent, give him choices. This is a well-known and wonderful strategy for toddlers, who are stuck in a developmental stage in which they have very little control over their world, and yet their need for autonomy is high. Offering limited choice to toddlers — do you want to wear the blue or the red sneakers — gives the impression of control without allowing so much control that anarchy and chaos result.”

Once the expectation is set, offering choices is key. It’s not Do you want to get out of the bath? The expectation is clear, it’s time to get out of the bath. How you get out of the bath is your choice. Do you want to climb out yourself or do you want me to lift you out? I find myself offering my kids choices like this all day long. They feel the impression of control that Lahey mentions without letting anarchy and chaos result (most days).

Making sure our kids have opportunities to flex their independent muscles and try things their way is on us. We must stop ourselves from getting in involved, micromanaging, and offering unsolicited advice, even when we know our way really is best.


  1. Amen to ALL of this!! Your blog is simply the best and I wish you had the time to blog 3 times a day to share your wisdom! Amazing!!

  2. Jenny,
    Love your blogs…they are so “right on”! And your children are so adorable. Miss you and your Mom! Hopefully we can all get together again in the not too distant future.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.