Why It’s O.K. to Let Kids Fail: A Guide to Not Overparenting

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should kids failTwo years ago Kristina Sauerwein, a mom of two in St. Louis, Mo., attended a family fun night at the new school her seven-year-old daughter Zoe attended.

One of the games, which involved putting a golf ball into a hole, gave kids the chance to win a stuffed snake. Zoe tried—and failed—to get the ball into the hole. Zoe’s little brother, her friends, younger kids—they all hit the ball and won a stuffed snake. Meanwhile, Zoe kept trying, with the encouragement of her mom and dad, but missed the hole every time. As the winners stood around her, shaking their snakes like trophies, Zoe gave it one last shot. It was her 11th attempt. She missed.

That’s when Zoe had what her mother can only describe as “a meltdown.”

“I can’t tell you how hard it was to sit there and watch her cry,” says Sauerwein, 42. “I’m usually a softy about these things, but somehow I knew I had to let her experience the disappointment and frustration for herself. It was awful. I felt sick to my stomach.” She still feels bad about it, she says. “I felt like I watched her heart harden a little that day.”

Why It’s So Hard to Let Kids Stumble

Like Sauerwein, many mothers would’ve had a difficult time watching their child “fail.” As a parent, how do you stand idly by as your child falters, when all you want to do is set them up for success? How (when, where?) do you draw the line? And when does loving attentiveness become hovering overprotectiveness?

The day of the golf-ball fiasco, Sauerwein looked on as other parents stepped in to help their children make the shot. She could have intervened too. She could have even bought a stuffed snake for her daughter as a “Nice try!” consolation prize. But she didn’t do either of these things. Instead, she sat on her hands and let her daughter learn for herself that sometimes you fail no matter how hard you try. She says her daughter learned a valuable lesson in resilience that day. “She moped for the weekend, but then she got over it and went on with things,” she recalls.

These days, Sauerwein’s daughter is tougher-skinned. “Zoe’s been in situations where she’s won a trophy for soccer when she knows herself she’s no good at soccer. She’s not fooled,” says Sauerwein, citing the common practice of giving everyone a trophy or award, so no child has hurt feelings. “I think in a lot of cases losing is the best thing that can happen to you as a kid.”

A growing number of experts agree that by stepping in too often we can actually set kids back.

“Children need love and attention, yes. But at the same time they have to learn to problem-solve and that there are consequences to their actions,” says retired teacher Barbara Bushey, a 37-year classroom veteran turned parenting coach based in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. “They have to be allowed to fail sometimes, and parents who try to prevent that aren’t allowing their child to learn important lessons they’ll need as adults.”

RELATED: 5 Secrets to Raising Financially Responsible Kids

Our Precious Kids, Our Overprotective Selves

In recent years there’s been a much-discussed trend of overparenting, replete with a new vocabulary to describe said habits, e.g., “helicopter” parents, who hover and swoop down to intervene at the first sign of trouble, and “lawnmower” parents, who seek to smooth over every possible situation that could cause their child stress or discomfort.

A recent study by the Queensland University of Technology described the swoop-in-and-save phenomenon as parents’ “loving but misguided attempt to improve their child’s current and future personal and academic success.”

In the study, researchers surveyed more than 100 school counselors and child psychologists in Australia and asked them to answer questions about the prevalence of overparenting. Over 90% said they’d seen at least some instances of the phenomenon, citing examples like parents carrying children who were old enough to walk on their own, cutting food for students well into elementary school, agitating the school for higher grades than the student had earned, and micromanaging their kids’ academic work well into college.

RELATED: 7 Ways You Could Be Holding Your Daughter Back

According to numerous sources from Dr. Spock to Dr. Susan Newman, one of the standard Western notions of good parenting has been “high responsiveness” (responding to your child’s needs) coupled with “high demandingness” (expecting things of your child, such as good grades or doing their chores.)

But somewhere along the line, some parents began to believe that more was better: More praise. More help with homework. “I’ve been seeing this clinically for many years,” says Judith Locke, the lead researcher of the Australian study and a clinical psychologist. “These parents are putting extreme efforts into giving their child what they see as the best childhood. But it appears some of those efforts might inadvertently go too far.”

RELATED: Should You Put Your Kids’ Financial Health Before Your Own?

Why a Little Failure Is Good for Kids

There’s an old Chinese saying, “Failure is the mother of success.” You don’t have to look far in our culture to find celebrated examples of this very notion: Einstein is rumored to have flunked math for years; Steve Jobs was fired from the company he started, only to return a few years later and take Apple to new heights; Walt Disney himself was fired early in his career by a newspaper editor who told him that he “had no imagination and no good ideas.”

  • Gina

    Brilliant article!
    I am really trying to teach my nearly 6 year old daughter to not be a “teacup”. Sometimes that means allowing her to try things that many parents think she is too “young” or “little” for, like going on the “big girl” slide when she was 3. Other times, that means walking away from homework that is frustrating her, but always coming back to it when she is calm instead of just giving up on it.

    And you know what? She nails most of these challenges. And when she does fall, I’m there for her to encourage her to try it again. I think part of parenting is recognizing your child’s inborn temperment and working with the strengths that come with it.

  • imdb

    Seriously? Babying your babies does nothing to help them! I would never have even let my kids try ELEVEN times to win a prize. Third strike, you’re out! You are not your child’s friend, you’re the parent. Do your job, and do it well!

  • Karen

    This is a hard subject. I am 25 years old, my mom (more so than my dad) raised me as similarly described in this article. My question is how do you fix when “the damage is already done?” I have been successful with my education and carrer though have low self esteem issues from this that get brought into where I have already shown success.
    Thanks,
    Karen swtp28@yahoo.com

  • anon

    My parents were just like this, they never let me experience failure. When I was little and I made a decision that they didn’t like, that might end up bad for me, they’d make me change it for the safer option, saying things like “I know better than you.”…..Now as an adult its extremely hard for me to make any sort of decision on my own and not lean heavily on other people. Its so hard to learn basic coping skills when I’m living in a place where I’m expected to already have them.
    They are still trying to do this too, when I’m well into my 20′s. Its so hard to not give up and just let them control my life…But I have to keep fighting it, have to keep learning from my mistakes and not let my parents make all my decisions for me.