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White Knuckle Parenting: Letting Your Children Fail

It is so hard to watch our kids fail—especially if we might be able to prevent it. Why I think we have to let it happen sometimes anyway.

My oldest son plays on a soccer team that is at a fork in the road. Some of the players will be trying out to qualify for more advanced teams. Some of them will stay in the purely recreational space they currently occupy. My dilemma: Do I let my son, who is mentally and physically destined to stay at a lower level in soccer, try out anyway? Or do I protect him from the heartache of loss and failure?

It is a cliche, but there is a reason it is so. As Elizabeth Stone said, “Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”

Once you have a child, once you have that heart walking around outside your body, all you want to do is to protect it, to keep it safe, to keep it from heartbreak. Regardless of that instinct, however, parents also have to teach their children to grow into people capable of handling their own problems, which means you have to let them have problems. You have to let them lose. I am discovering that, as a parent, one of the hardest things to do is to let your child fail.

These lessons start early. At first, we pretend to lose the foot race against a toddler and let them believe that we can't block a basketball shot made by a person one-third our height. Yes, we have all intentionally miscounted squares in Snakes and Ladders so we go down the slide and our kid climbs the ladder and we have all held our breath when he draws a Candy Land card in hopes that he doesn't get sent all the way back to Plumpy.

Soon enough, we start mixing in loss. Sometimes we outrace them. Sometimes we don't reshuffle the deck to put Plumpy's card back at the bottom of the pile. (Sometimes, we still do—and not just for noble, self-esteem building reasons either. I have reshuffled that Candy Land deck purposely so many times to avoid the tantrum that I see brewing if my kid loses and also sometimes just because, oh dear lord, let this game end already!) But by the time my kids entered elementary school, for the most part, I stopped letting them win.

There is a transition phase between always being allowed to win and being old enough that parents have to step back entirely. My oldest son is in that transition phase. Soon enough he will be old enough that his failures and successes will be out of my hands, even if I wanted to control them. For now, I can still help with those outcomes. 

I can't protect my kids forever. Nor do I want to. They have to learn about—and experience—failure in childhood if they are to be able to cope with it as adults. Not to mention that I don't really like the people who have never been faced with losing in their lives. I don't want to raise that kind of entitled kid.

At a certain point, however, those failures become more high stakes than Candy Land. My son's soccer situation is one of them. I can't quite imagine what his little psyche will go through if he tries out and doesn't make it. And he won't make it. I know that. He is a great sport and loves being part of his team, but he's not gifted with higher level soccer skills. If he tried out, he would lose and he would be crushed.

I'm not setting him up for that.

I'm not opening him up to that failure. This time, I am protecting that heart.

I know what some people will say to that. Some people will say I am selling him short. Some will say that I am babying him. Some will say that I should leave the decision up to him, even if his perception might be skewed. Some will say that if I don't give him opportunity to fail, that I am not giving him opportunity to succeed.

They might be right.

I'm still going to protect him from this one thing that could break his heart without teaching him much of anything. In fact, in this case, even his coach thinks that his trying out for the more advanced team would be a mistake.

That said, there are other places where I do let him fail. He is currently extremely stressed out about an upcoming homework project. I am giving him the support he needs at home, but I could probably intervene to help him more than I am willing to do. If he fails because he missed a deadline or didn't put in enough effort, that is a lesson I am willing to let him learn the hard way, consequences and grades be damned.

For me, it is a matter of protecting him where he is weaker (sports ability) and exposing him where he is stronger (academics). After he learns to deal with higher stakes disappointment where he can handle it, hopefully he'll be able to start taking those chances in all areas of his life.

I firmly believe in letting our kids learn from their mistakes and I also firmly believe that failure has its own lessons. Ultimately, I really do understand that if you don't let your children risk failure, they will never succeed. 

I am just glad that I am able to continue to protect them from some of those failures for a little bit longer. Because just as children need to learn how lose, parents have to learn how to let go of their hearts. Neither of those things are easy lessons to take.

Jean, a.k.a. Stimey, writes a personal blog at Stimeyland; an autism-events website for Montgomery County, Maryland, at AutMont; and a column called Autism Unexpected in the Washington Times Communities. You can find her on Twitter as @Stimey.

Sue May 16, 2012 at 03:51 AM
We had a similar experience and we chose the other way. You are doing the right thing. Let him love soccer and be good at the level that is right for him.
Maggie Spitler May 16, 2012 at 01:13 PM
I seem to be having the opposite problems. There are things I think my girls would be good at, and they should at least try, so they know, but they won't...I don't want them to fail, but like you said, if they don't try, they won't get the chance to succeed.
Elaine May 16, 2012 at 02:09 PM
There's another reason to avoid the soccer try-out. Kids need to be out playing more, not less. If this could make him turn away from a game that he's getting out and doing, into not doing it any more, that's not a good thing for him. That said, I am totally a believer in letting my kids fail, and I am also in the camp that they don't deserve compliments for everything they do.

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