Protect Your Kids From Failure

The case for self-esteem, success, and even an occasional participation trophy
Mikko Saari/Flickr

It isn't usually spelled out quite so bluntly, but an awful lot of parenting practices are based on the belief that the best way to get kids ready for the painful things that may happen to them later is to make sure they experience plenty of pain while they're young. 

I call this BGUTI (rhymes with duty), which is the acronym of Better Get Used To It. 

If adults allow—or perhaps even require—children to play a game in which the point is to slam a ball at someone before he or she can get out of the way, or hand out zeroes to underscore a child's academic failure, or demand that most young athletes go home without even a consolation prize (in order to impress upon them the difference between them and the winners), well, sure, the kids might feel lousy—about themselves, about the people around them, and about life itself—but that's the point. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, and the sooner they learn that, the better they’ll be at dealing with it.

The corollary claim is that if we intervene to relieve the pain, if we celebrate all the players for their effort, then we'd just be coddling them and giving them false hopes. A little thanks-for-playing trophy might allow them to forget, or avoid truly absorbing, the fact that they lost. Then they might overestimate their own competence and fall apart later in life when they learn the truth about themselves (or about the harshness of life). 

The case for BGUTI is, to a large extent, a case for failure. The argument is that when kids don’t get a hoped-for reward, or when they lose a contest, they’ll not only be prepared for more of the same but will be motivated to try harder next time. An essay on this very blog last year, titled “Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail,” cued an enormous on-line amen chorus. The journalist Paul Tough informed us, “If you want to develop [kids’] character, you let them fail and don’t hide their failures from them or from anybody else.” A casual Web search produces tens of thousands of similar declarations.

Unlike the charge that children are spoiled, which has been around forever, there was a time when it would have seemed surprising to make a case for failure because it up-ends the expected order. It’s logical to think that success is good and failure is bad; we want to help kids succeed and reassure them about their capabilities. But listen to this: Failure can actually be helpful!  It’s possible to feel too good about yourself! Parents may be hurting their children by helping them!

These messages presumably raised eyebrows at first because they were unexpected and counterintuitive. Except now they aren’t. People are still telling this story as if it represents a bold challenge to the conventional wisdom, but the fact is that almost everyone else has been saying the same thing for some time now. It has become the conventional wisdom. Indeed, the notion that failure is beneficial, or that kids today are overprotected or suffer from inflated self-esteem, is virtually the only message on these subjects that we’re likely to hear.

The corresponding advice—let them stumble!—is offered in response to our alleged failure to let children fail. So let’s begin by asking whether this assumption is really true. The idea that kids lack experience with failure and frustration is really just another way of saying that things are too easy for them. But have you ever met a child who doesn’t regularly experience failure and frustration? I haven’t. One need only watch a child carefully—or, if the occasion presents itself, ask her directly—to get a sense of how often she tends to fall short of her own or others’ expectations, how often she’s disappointed with how things worked out, how often she doesn’t get what she wants, how often she finds herself on the receiving end of critical judgments from her peers or adults, how desperately she wishes she could perform as well as __________ (that kid she knows who seems to do things effortlessly). And her frustrations are doubtless compounded if all these feelings aren’t taken seriously by adults.  Which they often aren’t.

The key question, though, is how likely it is that failure will be constructive, and whether our chief concern should be to make sure children have more opportunities to screw up. Undoubtedly many very successful people have encountered setbacks and deprivation on the way to triumph. But that doesn’t mean that most people who encounter setbacks and deprivation go on to become successful. We rarely hear about all those folks who displayed awesome grit and gumption but never made a go of their business, never sold their app, were never discovered by a talent scout, never had a chance to smugly recount their earlier setbacks and deprivation to an interviewer—for the simple reason that they're still having them.

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