The Failure Paradox

By Ryan Burke

Think about the word failure. Could you call someone a failure without being disrespectful? It starts
with the letter “F”, and we all know what getting an “F” means in the world. Yet, I know that failure is
critical to learning, and I want my own kids to learn how to fail with grace and resilience. There are even
famous quotes that say something to the effect of “You need to fail in order to succeed”. Given this
truth, I thought it was important to weigh in on the critical nature of failure for school age kids, and how
to go about dealing with it as it occurs in your household.

As an educator in middle school and high school, I have run into this paradox over and over, and it
usually shows up around 7th or 8th grade when kids start getting grades and taking tests. With the onset
of homework and projects that take more time management comes the parenting moment where one is
faced with the choice of whether or not to intervene when you see the train wreck coming.

Other parents, the school, your neighbor will offer advice. With a smile, they will tell you that it is time
to let go. After all, it is your child’s grade at stake, not your own, but as all parents know, there is some
voice inside that asks, “You want me to let my child fail?”, and it just doesn’t seem to fit.

Good parents do not let their children fail, right? Wrong. First of all, there is no such thing as a good
or bad parent. All parents love their children and want the best for them, but each parent has choices
to make and often it is one’s own past experience with failure that drives our decision making. In my
opinion, there are few key things that you need to ask or consider when confronted with this paradox.

  • Do I want my child to live in my basement until they are thirty?
  • Do I know how to support my child emotionally without taking over and fixing their problems?
  • If my child fails, will I be embarrassed?
  • Do I have better things to do than organize my child’s backpack or deliver the math homework to school that they forgot at home?
  • Do I want my child to feel empowered to solve their own problems or reliant on me to deal with their issues? Answer this one carefully as many parents feel a great deal of satisfaction from being the person who swoops in and knows what to do.

Now check your answers:  “No to number one, “I don’t know or I hope so” to number two, “Yes” to
number three, “Yes” to number four, and probably “yes” and “yes” to the last one if one is being honest.
Taking them in order, here is what I would add:

A critical act of love as a parent comes in the form of letting your child fail. There is a high
likelihood they will end up living in your basement if you don’t; especially if they are male.
The act of supporting your kids emotionally without doing anything to fix their problems is hard,
but worth investing some time looking into. It gives parents something to do when they get
anxious. When kids come home crying after failing a test, being dumped, or being wronged by a
teacher, instead of trying to fix it, just make cookies. Everyone feels better after eating cookies,
and while baking does nothing to change one’s reality, it helps communicate that you are there
for them and you care. If cookies aren’t your thing, try saying, “That sounds really hard, is there
anything you need?”

In regards to your own embarrassment over your child’s failure, you will need to get over it.
Everyone makes mistakes, and nothing teaches a child to hate themselves more than a parent
who is embarrassed by them. Perfect parents do not exist, and nothing can bring a competent
adult to their knees faster than a 3 year old or teenager who has decided to take a stand.
Parents do have more important things to do with their time than fix their kid’s mistakes. Take
up a hobby or if one is intent on working, find a job that pays you money instead of working for
your child for free. Your kids may be disappointed that you didn’t bring their math homework
to school, in fact they may even blame your for their failure, but in the long run they will respect
your more for leaving it to them to figure that out, and you will be shocked how many kids will just solve their own issues when given the chance.

Last, but not least, the act of intervening so that your child doesn’t experience any pain feels
like an act of love, but to a teen it sends the implicit message that they are incapable. Trust me
on this one, I have sat with hundreds of kids who believe they are failures, and I have traced
the roots of that belief to an overbearing parent that takes over their life with good intentions.
Why do you think that rehabilitation centers for troubled teens center on hard work and
responsibility? The reason is that teens want to be independent. That is their primary job, to
learn to take care of themselves, so they can transition, go to college, move out and ultimately
face this same paradox with their own children.

Parenting is the hardest thing I have ever done, and I know that this paradox is one of the most difficult issues that parents of middle and high school kids face.

Good luck, and I would love to hear your feedback and thoughts.

Ryan Burke

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