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.

Here’s what we learn from psychology: What’s most reliably associated with success are prior experiences with success, not with failure. Although there are exceptions, the most likely consequence of having failed at something is that a child will come to see himself as lacking competence. And the result of that belief is apt to be more failure. All else being equal, a student who gets a zero is far more likely to give up (and perhaps act up) than to try harder.

We may wish that a child who can’t seem to get on base, or spit out a list of facts from memory during a test, or coax anything more than a hideous shriek from his violin will react by squaring his shoulders, reciting the mantra of The Little Engine That Could, and redoubling his efforts until, gosh darn it, he turns things around. But wishing doesn’t make it true. That turn of events remains the exception rather than the rule. It’s true that kids learn from failure, but what they’re likely to learn is that they’re failures.

In a typical experiment, children are asked to solve problems that are rigged to ensure failure. After that, they’re asked to solve problems that are clearly within their capabilities. What happens? Even the latter problems now tend to paralyze them because a spiral of failure has been set into motion. This doesn’t happen in every case, of course, but for at least half a century researchers have been documenting the same basic effect with children of various ages.

Failure often proves damaging in part, as Deborah Stipek of Stanford University explains, because it changes children’s understanding of why they succeed and why they fail. Specifically, those who have learned to see themselves as failures are “more likely to attribute success [when it does happen] to external causes, and [to attribute] failure to a lack of ability” as compared to “children who have a history of good performance.” A kid who doesn’t do well assumes that if he does succeed, he must have just gotten lucky—or that the task was easy. And he assumes that if he fails again, which he regards as more likely, it’s because he doesn’t have what it takes: intelligence, athletic ability, musical talent, whatever.

This quickly turns into a vicious circle because attributing results to causes outside of one’s control makes people feel even more helpless, even less likely to do well in the future. The more they fail, the more they construct an image of themselves—and a theory about the results—that leads to still more failure.

And it’s not just achievement that suffers. Those who fail also tend to lose interest in whatever they’re doing (say, learning), and they come to prefer easier tasks. Both of these outcomes make perfect sense: It’s hard for a child to stay excited about something she has reason to think she can’t do well, and it’s even harder for her to welcome a more difficult version of whatever she was doing. In fact, failure often leads kids to engage in something that psychologists call “self-handicapping”: They deliberately make less of an effort in order to create an excuse for not succeeding. This lets them preserve the idea that they have high aptitude. They’re able to tell themselves that if they had tried, they might have done much better.

And the news is even worse if we’re concerned about kids’ psychological health.  Even someone who really does buckle down and try harder when he fails may be doing so out of an anxious, compulsive pressure to feel better about himself rather than because he takes pleasure from what he’s doing. Even if it does occur, is success really worth that price?

What all this means is that when kids’ performance slides, when they lose enthusiasm for what they’re doing, or when they try to cut corners, much more is going on than laziness or lack of motivation. What's relevant is what their experiences have been. And the experience of having failed is a uniquely poor bet for anyone who wants to maximize the probability of future success.

This post is adapted from Alfie Kohn's The Myth of the Spoiled Child: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom about Children and Parenting.