Helping Our Kids Lose Well in a Fail-Safe World

Han Solo may have gotten the princess, but his parenting skills didn’t win Oscars.

While superheroes rushing to the rescue may bring in box office accolades, that behavior backfires for parents who want their kids to succeed in a challenging galaxy. Research shows that most of our kids’ inability to deal with failure, and therefore succeed, stems from my generation’s unwillingness to step away from the kid.

Guilty. I did once practically bribe other kids to come to my daughter’s birthday party.

Christian parents, especially, are prone to feeling that their kids need to be “above-the-cut”—a belief that causes us discomfort when our child does fail publicly. We may do anything to circumvent that embarrassment. Taking the long-range view, however, reassures us that it is far better to raise a child capable of risking for God—win or lose—than one who fears whatever God wants of her is too scary to even attempt.

To give children the skills they need to fail well, parents need less Han and more Obi-Wan—watch, listen, dialog, model. Here are five ideas.

#1: Don’t Run To Rescue.

My name is Jill and I am an enabler. I drove the homework to school. I glued the posters back together at the last minute. Once, I drove forty minutes to bring my thirteen-year-old her cleats for a track meet. I was frazzled. She was anxious. I did not encourage well; she did not run well.

My name is Jill and I am an enabler. I drove the homework to school. I glued the posters back together at the last minute. Once, I drove forty minutes to bring my thirteen-year-old her cleats for a track meet. I was frazzled. She was anxious. I did not encourage well; she did not run well.

Rather than dashing to get her the shoes, making her sit out the meet would have let her think about how much she liked to race and how to avoid this situation. Maybe she would not have forgotten her shoes the next time.

In questioning “Why Are Today’s College Students So Emotionally Fragile?” Diane Dreher explains how brain development for coping with stress only occurs when a child works through difficulties in life. When parents shield their kids from less than perfect results, brain connections used in problem-solving never fully develop.

If a potential failure will not result in serious bodily harm or truly devastating embarrassment, let the child fail without Superparent to the rescue.

#2: Talk through the scenarios.

Our third daughter doesn’t handle the unknown well. She likes to know what to expect, what is expected of her, and what she has to do to make sure none of that changes. She requires a lot of talking down off the figurative ledge. Since all three girls spent about ten years in community theater, we used many audition days – times when failure is inevitable—to talk through those worries.

My favorite question is: “What’s the worst that can happen?” Whatever the answer, pursue it to the end.

“I’ll be embarrassed.” So? What’s the worst that can happen?

“I won’t get the part.” So? What’s the worst that can happen?

Taking this logic to its end helps a child see that that she can go into the audition/recital/interview knowing that whatever happens, it’s not really the worst. Helping her work through what could happen if she fails helps her face the fear of it. You can take his conversation into any fearful situation, from auditioning for a play to inviting the new, lonely kid to the lunch table. In the end, the final question is always, “Can God handle your worst?”

#3: Value play.

Free time is when kids imagine, explore, and create. These are the formative hours for developing skills to problem solve. Scheduling kids so tightly that they lose this time cripples their creativity, key to dealing with failure.

Play expert Dr. Stuart Brown in watching animals learned that bear play and human play accomplish similar results.

“The bears that played the most were the ones who survived best. Play allow pretend rehearsal, a rehearsal in which life and death are not at stake. Play lets animals learn about their environment and rules of engagement.”

Unstructured play also allows kids to work out potential relationship failures. It’s in learning how to take turns with the swings, create an alternate world in the trees out back, or cope with a rule-flouting bully that kids figure out rule making, negotiation skills, and the heeding of others’ (sometimes unspoken) language.

Along with play, learn to laugh at yourselves. Obviously, this doesn’t mean howling when your kid falls on her face in the gymnastics meet. Sensitivity is key. So, we can laugh together when I take the crème brulee bars for church group out of the oven and they are not brulee but in actual flames. The ability to laugh at small failures gives us the resiliency to not be frustrated at larger ones because we’ve learned to smile and start over. “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” (Prov. 17:22)

#4: (Too) Great Expectations.

“I love your poster display! Maybe you could add a little more information here, and you know, your handwriting is kind of . . . well, why don’t you use stickers? It’s so much more polished.”

I worked on far too many 4H posters that were not mine.

There is a line between encouraging a child to do better and creating an atmosphere of “you can always do better.” Sometimes, kids fail because they feel they can’t ever meet their parents’ unrealistic expectations. They come to accept failure as a given, often even intentionally failing to get it over with.

In her years of teaching, writer Jessica Lahey noticed a pattern—kids who quit trying rather than risk a less-than-perfect result. She refers to the release those expectations as the gift of failure, giving a child the freedom to love learning and risking, heedless of “academic and extracurricular perfection.” Those who try for the simple joy of it rather than the competitive value don’t mind failing so much.

This follows the basic principle of Paul: “Do not exasperate your children” (Eph. 6:4). 

#5: Normalize Failure.

Parents who shield their kids from failure leave another unintentional result. Their children come to regard failure as abnormal and unredeemable. A person for whom failure is seen as catastrophic and unacceptable internalizes the message that failure cannot be recovered from. It is terrifying.

Normalizing failure is one of the best things we can do for our kids. Let them see your own failures. Be willing and gracious to apologize to your kids if you have failed them. Tell them stories of famous successes who have failed. Talk about all the characters in the Bible who failed terribly and yet began again to finish strong. Send them the message: Failure is normal. It happens to everyone. It is a part of life and learning. Is is not shameful.

Put down the light sabers, parents. Let the little Jedis fall. They will be stronger for it.