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Why It's So Hard to Let My Kids Fail

I try to hold back from helping with the science project, but it's right there, and a few little tweaks wouldn't hurt, would they?
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boy doing homework
boy doing homework

A version of this essay originally appeared on Role Reboot.

The lunch bag is sitting on the counter. Again. It's the third time this week one of my children has left something behind.

My next step is clear -- leave it there. That is, of course, if I follow the new parenting mantra: Let your children fail.

Books like Jessica Lahey's The Gift of Failure: How The Best Parents Learn To Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed are offering parents a reprieve from our hyper-parenting ways. Let children be, they tell us, even if that means they fail once in a while. From what I've read so far, it makes perfect sense.

Here's the thing, though: I want to follow through, I really do. But much like the way I want to cut down on sugar and carbs, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. I try to hold back from helping with the science project, but it's right there, and a few little tweaks wouldn't hurt, would they? And is it such a big deal to bring his lunch to school?

The advice is clear. If we want to raise resourceful and successful children, we need to give them opportunities to fail and learn from those failures. We can't save them from every obstacle or hardship they encounter.

I get it.

Still, I find myself -- an educated, responsible adult who reads smart books like Lahey's -- wondering, Why can't I follow through? Do I really think my son will not become a concert virtuoso because he forgot to practice flute one day? Is my daughter bungling her admission to Harvard if her Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing book report sits on the kitchen island instead of in the teacher's inbox? Will either of them get pneumonia because they forgot rain jackets and the forecast is calling for showers?

Chances are, in all cases, no. Then again, what if? If you're anything like me, it's a few short daydreams from not studying for the math quiz to living in a cardboard box over a subway grate.

Years ago, when I was first married, a younger friend was lamenting the state of her love life, or lack of it. "Maybe I should move because there are no cute single guys in this city? Maybe I should go to that party tonight because 'the one' might be there? Maybe I should switch jobs? Cut my hair? Join that gym?" She was searching for something, everything, anything, to ensure she didn't grow old and die alone.

"Relax." I said. "You're so young. Enjoy yourself!" I reminded her that I was 27 when I got together with my husband.

She sighed. "If I knew I was going to meet my future husband at 27, or 32, or even 35, I could stop worrying. I could stop trying so hard and just do what I want."

I laughed. What a silly concept. To think that by changing some arbitrary inputs you could ensure a desirable output. Or, that if you could ensure certain outcomes you would stop worrying and get on with the fun.

Of course what seemed ridiculous as a philosophy for a love life turns out to be what I subscribe to when it comes to raising my kids. If I knew that at 27, or 32, or even 35, my children will have found love, secured a steady job, and become contributing members of society, I could stop worrying. I could let them do their homework without micromanaging. I could leave the running club consent sheet sitting on the counter instead of driving it to school. I would say, "Forget tutoring, we're watching TV all night!"

But we don't know, do we? Sure, the kids are all right... now. But is that only because we program and protect them to within an inch of their lives? Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of unstructured time and forgotten permission forms?

Like most parents, if you ask me what I want for my children, my answer is, I want them to be happy. But that's not the whole truth. I also want, at some future point, to know I've played a role in raising decent, successful, caring human beings. In effect, I want myself to be happy. With so much riding on this bet, it's no wonder I'm all in, all the time. It's hard to let my kids fail when doing so means failing myself.

So what's the answer? Lahey suggests, "We need to give our children autonomy, allow them to feel competent, and let them know we support them as they grow." But it's one thing to instill our kids with the confidence to believe they can handle things. It's another, sometimes more complicated endeavor to believe it in ourselves. Because letting my children fail is not just about trusting that they can deal with the repercussions if and when they mess up. It's about having faith in myself, that I can.

So, if my child doesn't make the soccer team, or isn't writing the perfect book report, or forgets the lunch bag, or backpack, or instrument (this happens more often than you would think), that's OK. I need to trust that the long-term outcome, no matter what it is, will be manageable. For both of us.

In some ways, raising children is a lot like getting married -- it's a leap of faith. There are no guarantees that any of the various inputs we try to control will lead to a specific outcome. It's time, then, to get on board with the strategy: time to let my children stumble and fall. But the first step to letting my children fail is finding the courage and faith to do so myself.

Ann Cinzar writes about family, culture and negotiating the complexities of modern life. Her work has appeared in various publications including The Washington Post, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Literary Mama and The Globe and Mail. Find her at, or follow her on Twitter @anncinzar.