Why Parents Should Let Their Kids Fail

Take away struggle, disappointment, and heartache completely from childhood and you are left with what will become a fragile and incomplete adult.
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Let's start with two stories.

I was "keeping score," a phrase that you'll soon discover deserves serious air quotes, at my nephew's basketball game. He was maybe 8, the age of my oldest daughter now. One of the teams, I don't know if it was his or not, was getting trounced. It was ugly. The scoreboard, my scoreboard, reflected this in-progress beatdown, but only for a moment. Just before the halftime whistle, I was scolded by one of the parents. Seems I didn't get the memo entitled "Keep It Tied So Little Johnny Doesn't Cry." I put up a brief fight, but was mostly just mouth-open-flabbergasted by the idea that these 7- and 8-year-old kids wouldn't be allowed to win or to lose.

Years earlier, when I was 17 or 18, I had my driver's license suspended. That's what happens when you get pulled over, can't produce proof of insurance and have only an expired vehicle registration to show for yourself. I couldn't drive for a year. Ouch. Harsh, for sure. The unabridged version also involves speeding in a school zone, driving barefoot and eating McDonald's. The last offense isn't technically a crime, but should be. I had to walk home that morning because they took my crappy little Honda Civic away from me right there on the street. In a funny twist, it turned out that the cop who caught me that day was a customer of the neighborhood pharmacy where my mom worked. Back then, there was some hubbub about local people calling in favors to get their tickets and legal issues, um, adjusted, and my mom asked if I wanted her to talk to the officer about my situation the next time he needed his prescription filled. Maybe he had gout, we'll never know. I said "no thanks" (always the polite boy), adding that I was wrong and that I did do the thing(s) I was accused of doing. I didn't want or deserve any kind of special, hush-hush treatment. My mom, who just reminded me of this recently, was impressed then, and, apparently, still is. See why she loves me so much?

It might not seem like it, but these two stories are related.

This story is my story. And my story has its roots in a childhood spent as a Civil War enthusiast (that really can't be the appropriate word.) As a young man of, say, 10 or so, I became enamored with two figures from that tumultuous period in our nation's history: our 16th president, and Mr. Frederick Douglass. It's a paraphrased quote from the latter that has guided me throughout the past 25+ years of life, and partly the reason I didn't go looking for a handshake deal to wipe away my vehicular paperwork transgressions, and why my feathers were ruffled about the mandate to force a tie in an otherwise forgettable basketball game.

Without Struggle There Can Be No Progress

If I have a mantra, this is it. The wifey has it down, and the kids hear it often. It's not just those seven words in that particular order. They've had explained to them the implications contained within the notion that with all efforts big and small -- in the classroom, on the playing field, growing up -- there are bound to be failures, but present in those moments of extreme disappointment and blood-curdling frustration, is the truth. The truth about themselves, about their passion (or lack their of) for the thing they are attempting to do, and about how the world sees them and how much weight to give the opinions of others.

It is right there, the falling hard off the bike and having a parent wipe away the tears and clean the cuts, before heading back out and trying it again, and again, and again, that the how, when, and where we learn the most about ourselves has its origin point. Take away struggle, disappointment, and heartache completely from childhood and you are left with what will become a fragile and incomplete adult.

This has also become my children's story. I will pass down many personality traits and idiosyncrasies, some good, some bad -- a love of dark chocolate mousse, an affinity for grilled asparagus, an appreciation for European football, among them -- but nothing will benefit my daughters as much as those seven words.

Without Struggle There Can Be No Progress

I have, for as long as I can remember, believed strongly in personal responsibility. I credit Phillip K. Howard's book, The Death of Common Sense, read during my decades-long non-fiction phase, for the enlightenment. I owned up, almost stubbornly so, to everything I did wrong and right from that moment, and tried to take as much as I could from each misstep (there were several) and from every success. There were, admittedly, less of those to examine. It probably also helped that I was essentially an only child with fantastic parents, and that I was and still am an introspective sort. I mean, when you've got no friends and like weird music, that choice is kinda made for you. I wouldn't trade my childhood for anyone's though, because I came out of it knowing that failure doesn't have to mean failure if you have people, like my two parents, to help you pull out of those times of struggle, nuggets of wisdom to help foster growth. Being allowed to fail and screw up also means that you'll better appreciate the successes that will eventually be achieved. Like Levon Helm said in The Last Waltz about visiting New York: "You get your ass kicked the first couple of times, but you come back again and eventually fall right in love with the place." Such is life.

Bringing this away from a mid-'70s rock film and back to parenting, the idea of making sure competitions end in ties not only prevents children from learning how to win gracefully and lose with dignity, but it also disrespects their intelligence. For if one team is scoring every time down the court, and the other is firing bricks off the backboard and airballs into the crowd, don't you think they're hip to who "won" the game no matter what the score keeper has been coerced into doing? I was grossed out being a party to their misguided scheme of protection against failure. I contend the reasons behind this and similar adult decisions are two fold:

1) To protect and coddle. The roots of this are based in kindness, and as a parent of highly-sensitive girls, I totally understand that kind of enveloping love, but we'd be doing our children a grave disservice if we shield them from all hardship. By doing so, we are simultaneously keeping them from maturing and learning and growing into the well-adjusted human beings they deserve the opportunity to become.

2) To avoid real parenting. My wife thinks I am too hard on parents in general. I think most parents suck at parenting, and this "participation trophy," "TVs in cars" culture proves my point. If a parent can avoid "dealing" with their children or get out of having difficult but essential conversations about winning, losing,and failing, they will do so nine times out of ten. Making a basketball score end in a tie is the easy way out, just like installing and regularly using a TV in the backseat of the car. Both are akin to shoving a pacifier into the mouth of a child. Both shut them up and make it easier for the parent to go about their life without the interruption of a child, without the struggle of trying so damn hard to turn dark clouds into distant rainbows. There is no struggle in the easy way out, and there will be less progress as a result.

If I had gotten off easier after I lost my car and walked over a mile home, scared to death about how I was going to explain to my parents what I'd done and why I'd done it, the lessons of personal responsibility would have been diminished and going forward, I would think that I was somewhat invincible, that I could finesse my way through any poor decision. It would've been easier on my parents to make this mistake of mine go away too, but they didn't do it. They took the harder path because it was the best thing for their son in the long-term. If either of us had cracked then, I wouldn't have learned, grown, matured and become the man I am today. The one who NEVER lets his car insurance lapse.

Good parenting is really hard work. Duh. It's supposed to be super challenging, because the job is not designed to approximate that of a surrogate's. It is our responsibility to teach with a focus on the present and an eye toward their future, and to have the gut-wrenching conversations about getting destroyed in a 3rd-grade basketball game, or not qualifying for the gymnastics team, or bowing out of the science fair early. That is what we are here to do, because all of that is the human foundation-building we signed up for when we became parents.

The daddy-ruined-me conversations that happen on daytime talk shows years later are far more difficult than the ones we should be having right now while our children are still young, while their failures can still point towards progress.

An unedited version of this story first appeared on The Good Men Project. Read another dad's take on letting his kid fail and his showdown with a helicopter playground mom on The Daddy Files.