Parents Should Allow Kids to Fail

A middle school teacher in the US makes a very good point in a piece in The Atlantic magazine about the importance of failures in a child’s life. Jessica Lahey recalls a case of plagiarism in which a student’s mother turned out to be the main culprit. The mother defended her writing a paper — consisting largely of material lifted from websites — for her daughter to hand in because daughter had been stressed out, and mother did not want her to get sick or overwhelmed.

In the end, my student received a zero and I made sure she re-wrote the paper. Herself. Sure, I didn’t have the authority to discipline the student’s mother, but I have done so many times in my dreams.

While I am not sure what the mother gained from the experience, the daughter gained an understanding of consequences, and I gained a war story. I don’t even bother with the old reliables anymore: the mother who “helps” a bit too much with the child’s math homework, the father who builds the student’s science project. Please. Don’t waste my time.

Noting that teachers today frequently swap stories about mounting levels of “over-parenting”, Lahey notes that it is not common types of over-protectiveness (a child isn’t allowed to go to camp or learn to drive, a parent cuts up a 10 year-old’s food or brings separate plates to parties for a 16 year-old because he’s a picky eater) that worry her. She reckons children recover from these as they grow up. No, the real problem parents are those who won’t let their kids make mistakes, take responsibility for them and so learn from them.

These are the parents who worry me the most — parents who won’t let their child learn. You see, teachers don’t just teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. We teach responsibility, organization, manners, restraint, and foresight. These skills may not get assessed on standardized testing, but as children plot their journey into adulthood, they are, by far, the most important life skills I teach…

I’m not suggesting that parents place blind trust in their children’s teachers; I would never do such a thing myself. But children make mistakes, and when they do, it’s vital that parents remember that the educational benefits of consequences are a gift, not a dereliction of duty. Year after year, my “best” students — the ones who are happiest and successful in their lives — are the students who were allowed to fail, held responsible for missteps, and challenged to be the best people they could be in the face of their mistakes.

It’s good to hear this from a teacher, don’t you think?

Carolyn Moynihan


Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

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  • JMC

    I think one of the biggest problems today is that the fact that there are consequences to one’s actions or inactions is an alien concept to most kids and young adults. A large part of it has to do with the fact that parents are increasingly discouraged from giving their kids any kind of discipline beyond a “time out.” When I was a kid, I LAUGHED at timeouts. So I was sent to my room. Big deal. When my mother went to the closet and took out the paddle, then it was time to start worrying about what I had done. Contrary to popular belief, corporal punishment does NOT teach kids merely to avoid getting caught; it teaches them that actions have consequences, and they learn to consider them before doing anything. Discipline AND failure are both essential parts of that process. By depriving our kids of it, we are probably doing them irreparable harm.

  • Shayla

    Allowing your child to fail in school is a touchy subject. It depends on the age group.
    When my children were in elementary school (well two still are), I didn’t care about their marks in school other than if they were failing. They did all their work and pushed them to do their best.
    In high school its very different and I wouldn’t be happy with failure. I have a daughter in grade 12 who is preparing to submit her marks to universities soon and I know that failure is not acceptable. She studies herself into the ground because she wants to study nuclear physics and low marks are not acceptable.
    My husband and I both re-enforced into each of our five children that marks do matter but that cheating was wrong. We never went for the “marks aren’t important, it’s what you learn that’s important.” Learning is obviously very important but its being able apply that knowledge that guarantees success in life. Universities don’t care that if a child learned a lot of about the second world war if their history mark is one that’s in the 70% range.
    Saying that failing is alright is wrong. Making sure a child knows that there are consequences for things such as cheating are the important parts. Parents also need to know that they can’t keep helping their children. Certainly it is good to help a child understand their homework, but at the end of the day, the child has to do the homework and apply the concepts to show that that they learned something.
    Also to the mother mentioned in the article that didn’t want her daughter to feel stressed, I want to give her a reality check. I’m going to assume that the daughter was elementary school age because this seems to be the time when parents are most able to “help” their child. Her daughter is going to feel more and more stressed as she gets higher and higher up in school level. What is she going to do when her daughter is in university studying for a final exam that determines her entire course mark and the exam will be on all the concepts covered in 4-6 different textbooks? Children need to learn to deal with the stress that school brings and pick themselves up afterwards.