Why learning to fail is as important as success

Dateline Portland, Oregon--Amelia J. Wilcox, Ph.D.: What happens when we raise kids who are not afraid to make mistakes or fail? Can we let our kids fail when we ourselves fear the stakes are too high?

Learning to fall down:

My most vivid memory of the first time I got on skis was of my ski instructor teaching us how to fall. Over and over again, we fell into the snow. It seemed to go on forever. I was impatient to speed gracefully down the slopes, and what we were doing made no sense to me at all. But then we started down the gentle bunny hill. And we started falling for real. I still didn’t get it then, but I sure do now—I’d learned to fall down, so I wasn’t worried about it happening. I knew I could fall safely and without dire consequences. You could argue that practicing falling made me less likely to, but I wasn’t ever a terrific skier so I doubt that is true. Practicing falling did, however, make me looser and more confident on my skis. It allowed me to focus on having fun and learning some skills.

I was raised in a time when school and the school day belonged to students and teachers. Parents were less likely to intervene when something didn’t go just the way it was planned. I was also fortunate to have a wise mother who knew age-appropriate challenge and struggle to be essential to growth. And she was on-point when things didn’t go the way I hoped they would. She sat me down one day after a particularly upsetting test at school and told me, “Honey, you’ll learn far more from the things that don’t go well than you ever will from the things you sail through.” She made me feel I was fine, and she made the process of growth so much less daunting because of her approach. She’s been right over and over again.

Learning to fail in today’s world:
I try to remember this when I see my own teen heading into a rocky patch. I try to recall that day—and the many other times and situations in my life where I have practiced falling down or taken real tumbles. I try to keep in mind that having difficulty and learning from failing is actually good.  

But I also recognize I was raised when college applications did not typically include a 4.0 GPA, let alone a GPA above that number. Parental pressures are different now. And our kids have somehow become a social mirror of our own success in a way kids of generations past were not. These things contribute to today’s parents having a harder time allowing natural lessons to occur in the lives of their children.

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But just a thought about raising kids who are not afraid to fail: If you can do so, you get something wonderful as a result—a kid who knows to try another approach when a first, or second, or even third effort fails. A kid who isn’t afraid to stick his or her neck out and try new things. A kid who’ll decide in her senior year of high school that she DOES want to be in some plays—and then get herself cast. A kid who’ll decide that he wants to buy a canvas and some paints and see what happens. Maybe he’ll discover a love of art that will be a lifelong passion. Maybe he’ll consider it an interesting experiment and leave it aside for something else, but he won’t be afraid to try for fear of not succeeding.

Failure, success, grit:
The other day I heard the story of how micro-surgical procedures were developed for the eye. Suffice it to say, it took the pioneer responsible for this bold discovery decades to get it right. He failed over and over again during those years. But every time he did, he learned something new about what he was trying to do—simplify cataract surgery. And now what was once a lengthy procedure requiring a hospital admission takes 20 minutes in an outpatient surgical center. That is grit and determination. That is a great example of someone who did not fear failure.