Why the world needs you to let your kids fail
by Craig and Marc Kielburger
Silicon Valley has an unofficial motto: “Fail.”
Whenever we visit the California tech hub, we see evidence of pro-failure leanings. Facebook’s office features posters that read “Fail Fast.” Failing “often” and “early” are also encouraged. There’s even a global conference for tech entrepreneurs, called FailCon, to learn from worst practices.
In the environment where brilliant minds innovate and billionaires are born, failure is inevitable, and seen as a necessary step to success. But in our own work and personal lives, there is still a stigma attached to failure.
That fear of failure is being passed on to the next generation through failure avoidance, with some parents taking drastic measures to ensure their child’s success well into adulthood—like attending their kids’ job interviews.
Failure protection changes how kids see themselves. It also got us thinking about how they might tolerate and respond to failure in others. Could failure avoidance stunt our kids’ empathy?
Learning from failure helps build not only self-esteem, but self compassion, a kind of internal emotional maintenance that involves separating your identity from the blunder. You are not your mistake. If we never taste failure, we don’t experience that evolution—from anger or disappointment to healing, knowledge and growth—understanding that the whole person has not been compromised. The bug in your software doesn’t define you; it can actually make you stronger.
If young people don’t get the chance to test their failure response and hone self-compassion, they might lose empathy for others.
As a dad and an uncle to two little girls, we understand the instinct to protect kids from heartbreak. Helicopter parenting, however, has taken the rescue mission too far.
Well-meaning moms and dads take over tasks that may be difficult or frustrating, from tying shoe laces to completing homework assignments. Organized activities award participation medals and competition is eliminated from many team sports. We create artificial metrics for success so that kids can avoid losing house league soccer matches. (“We don’t keep score; we’re all winners!”) Children are rolled in emotional bubble wrap.
The consequence is that kids lose out on opportunities for personal growth.
It’s crucial that children gain the confidence to take healthy risks and aggressively pursue goals, all lessons lost with failure avoidance. It seems to us that learning to cope with failure also teaches kids how to forgive themselves, which in turn helps them learn forgiveness and compassion for others.
As they grow up, bubble-wrapped kids will encounter homelessness, unemployment, and people living with mental illness. But when you’ve always have a safety net, it’s hard to understand why others hit the ground after a fall. The assumption that everyone has a rescue team in place is an easy fallacy.
It’s the most privileged children whose parents have the means to leave the training wheels on throughout life, who learn that obstacles are like switches that can be turned off. So the less fortunate are more likely to be misunderstood, or written off as lazy and further marginalized.
It’s offensive to be intolerant towards race and gender, but it’s still culturally appropriate to accuse someone of failure by circumstance—to dismiss the person and ignore the obstacles. (Homeless? Why don’t you just get a job?).
We parents and youth mentors can all take a cue from tech entrepreneurs. Let kids fail young—while they are still in their beta phase, adaptable and resilient. Let them struggle with a math problem. Let them audition for the lead role when you know they’re likely to be cast as an understudy. Let them make mistakes that will build self-care, and even empathy.
We could create a more culturally compassionate society if we all failed a bit more often
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