How to know when to let your Child Fail

Parents want the best for their children.  They strive to keep them safe and happy.  However, sometimes children need to experience failure, loss, or frustration for emotional and social growth.  Knowing when to let a child fail can be a tough decision, one with which parents often struggle.  Asking a few basic questions will help any parent make a more informed decision about when to let children fail and when to step in to help them. 

First, will failing hurt your child?  Will failing at this particular task or activity cause your child physical harm or lasting emotional problems?  If the answer is yes, then obviously, this is the time to step in and help your child.  Examples of injuries that are okay include crying, being frustrated, stubbing a toe, tripping or falling in the course of normal activity, or any other minor incident that will cause temporary distress, but which will be forgotten long before the day is through.  Examples include young children learning to navigate the world through kicking a ball, walking on uneven ground, or trying to climb over small to medium objects.  Naturally, the children need to continue to practice, and fail, at these activities to learn to do them successfully.  For older children, this can be things like trying a sport or instrument and not being good at it, trying to help around the house and not being able to complete a task, or even struggling with a particular assignment but refusing to accept help from others. 

Second, will failing teach a lesson or build character?  Sometimes the only way to teach a lesson is by actually living it.  This includes the child who refuses to clean up but who won’t take responsibility for broken toys or who won’t put laundry in the hamper and complains about what clothes are clean.  In both of these cases, broken toys and dirty clothes, allowing a child to fail- suffering natural consequences- teaches the child the importance of taking care of our possessions.  Other examples include the child who won’t listen to a better way to do something and the child who repeatedly does something incorrectly despite being told the correct way.

Third, is this something the child could do?  Of course, it’s not okay to ask a toddler to do laundry and then watch his failure.  This is an unreasonable expectation and there is no realistic hope for anything other than failure.  In this case, it’s okay to step in and help a child or even to encourage the child to wait to try something until a later time.  Part of a child’s development is to want to learn new things, and children frequently attempt things they are not ready for.  In this case, it’s important to encourage the child to try rather than focusing on the outcome. 

Failure is a normal part of growth and development.  Learning occurs through a process.  Therefore, it is necessary for children to fail sometimes.  By ensuring that your child will remain safe, will not be emotionally damaged, will be able to learn something from the failure, and by assessing the overall chance for success vs. failure, parents can develop a reasonably good mental / moral guide for deciding when to let children try (and fail) new things and when to step in to help.