Let Your Teen Fail — It’s a Learning Opportunity
It’s natural to want your children to succeed. You love your children so you want them to be happy. That often leads to parents wanting to protect or rescue them. But sometimes children — teens in particular — have to take risks. And sometimes they will fail.
The word failure sounds harsh and ominous. It’s seemingly the end of the line for whatever or whoever has failed. But failure is an opportunity for growth! The time to experience failure is when they are young — while you are still keeping an eye on them. If they aren’t allowed to fail when they are younger, they could suffer later as young adults when consequences of failure are more serious.
Take the First Step — Become Comfortable with Failure
A first step to take in becoming more comfortable with our children failing is to realize that things are temporary. They will bounce back, and this too shall pass. Parents can support their children to understand these concepts. It could be suggesting something simple like raising their hands in class even if they’re afraid they may have the wrong answer. Or suggest they take a more challenging risk — like an audition for the high school musical! Either way, stepping outside comfort zones and taking chances are key.
Adolescents may be afraid they’ll fail, but it’s important they learn not to freeze up in the face of a challenge. Let them know you’re comfortable even if they don’t do well. That will help them not be overcome by fear they may experience.
Other words that suggest a more temporary state can be used in place of the term failure. Avoid this “f”-word. How about mistakes, missteps, misadventures or misfortunes? Use these words as alternatives. You may feel better. Take it a step further: call them opportunities for growth, ways to learn about yourself, or options to create later successes. A Japanese proverb that speaks to the concept of resilience states: “Fall down seven times, get up eight.” We at the Center for Parent and Teen Communication believe that with each effort to get up, young people grow stronger, wiser, and more creative. This is particularly true when the adults in their lives trust in their ability to right themselves and support them to do so.
Establish Safe Boundaries
Imagine a table covered with the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle titled, “Who Am I?” It’s a key question during adolescence. Teens don’t realize they’ve got a lifetime to complete the puzzle. Instead, they feel the need to tackle it quickly because it must be done by the time they finish high school. Or, if they’re writing their college essays, by early senior year!
When we put a puzzle together, we often begin with the corners and work to create the borders. It’s those boundaries you create as a parent that act as the protective edges. Some examples of boundaries include no smoking, no drinking before age 21, and only attending parties where an adult is present. They are the starting point of the puzzle. Teens can push against these edges, knowing they do so safely, precisely because they stay intact. This will give them the confidence to manipulate the inner pieces of the puzzle on their own — occasionally trying to force some pieces together that aren’t a natural fit. They’ll grow from trial, error, and recovery within our prescribed boundaries. These boundaries cannot be seen as random, they must focus on health, safety, and morality. Our children must know they are loved and that we have thoughtfully considered how to protect them. If they feel as though the borders are random, they will feel controlled rather than protected.
Some parents use this puzzle metaphor to think about when to jump in and when to allow the growth that comes from failure and recovery. If it’s outside of the borders of the puzzle, jump in and prevent failure. If it’s inside the puzzle’s protective edges, discovery, exploration, failure, and recovery is allowed as we watch from the sidelines.
Let Them Make Mistakes
Yes, it’s easier to say, “Let them try and fail,” than it is to actually do. When your son accidentally leaves his homework assignment on the kitchen table for the third time in a week it’s hard not to run after him as you did twice before. When your daughter forgets her gym uniform in a bag by the door and will be punished for this absent-mindedness, you may want to head to school with the forgotten items. As a caring parent, this is a totally natural response. But if this happens repeatedly, will your constant aid really help your teens become more organized? Will it help them manage their time more effectively? Likely not. If they lose points, however, they may remember to double-check next time. In the case of exams, they may start to realize that if they are to do better next time, they may need to study more now. If you sense they need a little nudge or guidance, work with them to brainstorm problem-solving solutions.
Model How to Learn from Mistakes
It’s also important that our teens see us, as parents, failing as well. It will help them understand that failing at a task or a job or a relationship is not the same as failing as a person. You are able to show them life goes on even though you took a risk and failed. Let them see you work to learn from your mistakes. Here’s a chance for them to begin to understand that certain things in life are hard work.
You are the puzzle picture on the cover your children compare themselves against. When teens have a role model of what healthy adults look like it becomes easier for them to complete their own puzzles. Celebrate your children when they test limits or go beyond them. Offer them support through disappointments. Encourage them to try again. Help them understand that there will be many things requiring multiple tries, different paths and lots of practice and devotion if they want to succeed. Allow them to fail within safe borders that you help create.
The Power of Getting Out of the Way
It’s okay for them to twist and turn those inner pieces of the puzzle or even to misplace them all together every now and then. That is their work. Their mistakes and the recovery from them are critical to growth. You can breathe easy knowing the boundaries you’ve established assure no long-lasting harm to their health, safety or moral development.
As youngsters learn their limits, they’ll also learn how to compensate for them. They may discover workarounds that can be used as they continue developing. Consider this a hard lesson to learn as a parent. To set your children up for success, you need to let them fail. Mistakes now will allow them to gain wisdom while they are still under your watchful eyes.