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The Art of Letting Your Child Fail

My 4-year-old won't ride a bike. She got a brand new bike for her birthday and after one trip down the small incline of our driveway, she put it away. "I can't ride this," she said, "I'm too afraid."

She has refused to touch it since. I'm tempted to chalk this up to just my kid being herself. She has always been cautious. She refused to walk until she was 18 months old. "No fall, mama," she'd say as she toddled around on her knees. "No fall."

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She has resisted putting on her own shoes, coat, trying a zipper, buckling her seat belt or even trying soccer for all of these same reasons—she doesn't want to fail.

It's amazing to me that someone so little can understand failure so quickly. And I get where she's coming from. I'm a very competitive person. Although I was home-schooled until high school, I've sobbed my eyes out over grades (a 99.5 to be specific). I remember begging my biology teacher to give me the extra half point. "It's almost worse than a B, because it's so close to perfection but not quite," I said.

I remember the teacher just blinking and telling me to go eat some lunch. He said I'd feel better in a few days and I assured him he was wrong. And he was wrong—it took me four years to feel better about that incident.

As a society, we've insulated our children from failure and, as a result, have created a generation of risk-averse children who don't know how to fail and get back up.

So my daughter comes by this honestly. Consequently, I often dismiss her refusal to even try as just her nature. I tell her it's no problem. I zip her zippers. Put on her shoes. Help her with her coat and let her ride her tricycle. After all, she's only little for so long, right?

But it's begun to occur to me that I am doing my daughter a great disservice. Teacher and parent Jessica Lahey writes in her book "The Gift of Failure": "The setbacks, mistakes, miscalculations and failures we have shoved out of our children's way are the very experiences that teach them how to be resourceful, persistent, innovative and resilient citizens of this word."

Her book documents how as a society we've insulated our children from failure and, as a result, have created a generation of risk-averse children who don't know how to fail and get back up. Then, and most importantly, she takes a whack at that American idol of parenting: the reward for performance. I highlight this because as Lahey argues, in order to encourage autonomy and creativity in our children we have to stop bribing the hell out of them. Using study after study, Lahey shows how rewards—like paying for grades and the one I am most guilty of, rewarding for chores—only have a pay-off for "repetitive, uncomplicated or boring tasks." She writes that pay for play "inhibits creativity and risk-taking. When rewards are at stake, emphasis is on the end result, so what's the point of creativity?"

These are not just a lesson for parenting, but for the classroom as well. In the last part of the book, Lahey offers concrete strategies for parents on how to collaborate with teachers to create an environment that encourages autonomy.

Perhaps I was the problem, not (my daughter). Perhaps I was micromanaging and over-parenting her.

But for me, as a parent of young children, I was most fascinated by the first two parts of the book that tackle head-on the problem of insulating our children from failure and how to go about redeeming our parenting. Of course, I believed my DNA was at fault when my daughter shrank from challenges, but I hadn't considered my parenting. After all, I give her chores. I reward good behavior and that encourages independence, right? Not so much.

Lahey makes the case for encouraging not just results but also effort. She talks about using praise that focuses on effort over achievement. The day I read that was the day I decided my daughter needed to tidy her room. I know she can do it. She's done it before, on her own. But I hate asking her, because when I do the situation devolves into tears and frustration, which I chalked up to her age and maturity. Perhaps I was the problem, not her. Perhaps I was micromanaging and over-parenting her.

So I changed my language. Instead of praising her for "being a good cleaner," I focused on giving her responsibility for her room. Telling her that it was her castle and she could clean it how she choose, but it had to be cleaned. There was still crying and frustration and a time-out after I got a bear chucked at my face. But I toed the line. And in the end, I praised her effort. "That was really frustrating, but I'm so proud of how hard you tried and how hard you worked," I said, trying not to point out how she'd left her bed full of stuffed animals.

She got the biggest smile and said, "It's my castle! I want to take care of it."

The next morning, when I showed her all her clothes to put away, she frowned. "It's too much work, I can't do it!" But instead of bribing her like I'm accustomed to, I reminded her that they were her clothes, she could put them away how she wanted, but she had to put them away. And again, I told her that trying was the most important part and if it got too hard, I could offer some suggestions. Then, I left her alone.

The clothes were put away in 20 minutes. No one cried. Her drawers were jumbled, but I figured it was a small price to pay for her independence. I will have to turn away when I want to lecture, or take a breath when I want to shout.

I will have to turn away when I want to lecture, or take a breath when I want to shout.

I'm sure this is no miracle solution. Part of where I struggle the most is staying out of social interactions, where Lahey argues children do their best learning. She outlines social and emotional benefits of giving children a chance to learn from their interactions with friends—the positive and the negative: "One missed lesson in the sandbox is no big deal, of course, but when that child grows up under the wing of parents who continue to rescue—from playground dust-ups to tween misunderstandings, and the inevitable volatility of adolescent friendships—that child becomes an adult with no clue about how to negotiate, placate, reason with and stand up to other adults."

This means, when someone throws sand at my child and she comes complaining, I need to encourage her to talk to that kid about his behavior and not get involved. This means, I will have to turn away when I want to lecture, or take a breath when I want to shout. But the long-term benefits outweigh that immediate reward of feeling like a "good parent" because I helped. Lahey writes, "We are not used to putting off what feels right and good for us in the short term in order to do what is right and good for our children in the long term."

My first gut reaction is to disagree that statement. They are so little, I want them to know I am there for them. But when I think back to how I was raised, I realized that somehow I am a competitive risk-averse person, who is now in a high-risk, high-failure field. And how did that happen? Well, my parents had eight children. They didn't have time to over-parent. So, often I was left on my own to suss, figure and even duke things out with my siblings. This is not to say I was raised perfectly, but the sheer volume of children in my house meant I had to learn autonomy; I didn't have a choice. And I loved it. I remember when I was 4, my mom showed my sister and I how to get our own milk from the fridge in a little pitcher she had bought for us and how to get snacks from a little cupboard. I remember feeling so proud the next morning when I woke up, got myself milk and some crackers.

I want that for my child and I want that for me. As a work-at-home mom, I'm often strapped for time and energy. I have so many things to juggle, I can't do everything for my children. Nor should I. But the guilt I feel for ignoring them to answer an email or take a call, or read a book that I have to review, often leads to overcompensation in other areas. Instead of this overcompensation, Lahey encourages autonomy, and autonomy is learned through failure and effort. And all that? Well, it's hard.

The reality of instilling grit in our children is a harder one to swallow. We don't want them to fail because we don't want to fail.

I know this. I know this from my own writing, from being rejected by agents for four years only to finally find one. From having my writing rejected for seven years, only to finally have it find a home. Lahey writes, "Gritty students succeed, and failure strengthens grit like no other crucible."

This is a maxim few will disagree with, but the reality of instilling grit in our children is a harder one to swallow. We don't want them to fail because we don't want to fail. Because our identities as mothers have been so wrapped up in our children that we rise and fall together. This shouldn't be the case. We should be allowed to be more than mothers and our children should be allowed to be more than our children.

And that change begins, Lahey argues, in our homes and classrooms.

After reading the book, I bought my daughter her own plastic pitcher for milk and we are going to make her a space for her own snacks. This morning, after I encouraged her to try buckling herself into her car seat she said, "I can't!" Instead of responding, "Sure you can," I said, "It's OK if you can or you can't—trying is the most important thing."

She tried. She failed. "I'm proud of you for trying," I told her. "Maybe next time we can try a new way to buckle until we finally get it."

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She smiled and paused for a moment. "Maybe I should try my bike again too." My heart leapt, but I played it cool. "What's your goal for riding your bike?" (Another Lahey strategy, let you kid set their own goals.) "Riding to Annabel's house," she said. "I can try and try until I can ride there, right, mom?"

"Of course, that sounds like a great thing to work on this summer."

And it does sound great, for the both of us.

Image via Twenty20/brittleighhh

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