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The Gift of Failure

Ella Herlihy

Responsibilities & Values

If you love winning, raise your hand. (Is your hand raised? I’m guessing so.) 

If you love losing, raise your hand. (Sitting comfortably with your hands in your lap?) 

Let’s ask a different question. When you think about the most valuable lessons you have learned in your lifetime, did more of them come from a success or a failure? 

Here is where we often base our parenting decisions on emotion rather than statistical evidence. According to Jessica Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, our desire to keep our children from experiencing pain overrides even our own life experiences about learning from failure. As she keenly points out, “Out of love and desire to protect our children’s self-esteem, we have bulldozed every uncomfortable bump and obstacle out of the way, clearing the manicured path we hoped would lead to success and happiness. 

Unfortunately, in doing so we have deprived our children of the most important lessons of childhood. 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 world.” 

Jessica implores us as parents to evaluate our actions and reactions to our children’s failures in light of what we rob them of when we rescue them. Think back to your own childhood … I’ll bet you have a story similar to mine. In fourth grade our class went to the library to check out biographies. I don’t remember why, but I chose George Washington Carver. I loved to read and eagerly started on my book as soon as I got home. However, unlike the Beverly Cleary books of my lazy afternoons, old George wasn’t really so interesting. My interest quickly waned and I forgot about the looming book report deadline. When the day came, I just didn’t turn anything in. When the teacher handed back everyone’s reports a few days later, I received a form with my name, the assignment, and a big “F” circled in red pen. Having never received an “F” before, I wasn’t really worried until I realized the form had a line for “parent signature” underneath. Begrudgingly, I took the form home and had to explain to my mother (a life-long teacher herself) that I failed for not turning in a report. 

If this were a modern sitcom, you could hear the parental yelling in the next room. But my mom calmly explained to me she would sign the form, but only after I read the book and wrote the report. She really didn’t make a big deal about it because she firmly believed that my school was my responsibility. She had not failed, I had failed. She was not a bad parent, nor was I a bad student. I made a choice that led to a consequence and now I had to pay the piper. So I dutifully read the book, wrote the report, and turned it in. Guess what? My grade didn’t change. I still had an “F.” But I learned a valuable lesson. I did not like the feeling of earning a bad grade. Notice I said “earning,” not “receiving;” the teacher did not give me an “F” like a gift. I had not done the work when it was due; therefore, I earned the “F.”. 

Throughout the rest of my schooling, I worked hard to earn my good grades. I knew I never wanted to feel that pit in my stomach again from not giving my best. We would never want to rob our children of the joy of winning the state basketball tournament after a season of hard work. How can we view their opportunity to experience the agony of defeat in the same way? When you wonder how to help facilitate long-term change in your child’s behavior, consider the value of letting them experience the natural consequences of their own choices. 

Failure is a valuable teacher. Give your child the opportunity to learn, don’t rob them of the chance to learn from their own mistakes. As Henry Ford said, “Even a mistake may turn out to be the one thing necessary to a worthwhile achievement.”

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Ella Herlihy

Being a mom to five children has given Ella Herlihy enough mistakes and victories to fuel her passion for guiding other parents along the road to raising responsible children without losing their minds in the process. She writes to help others learn from her many mistakes and victories, and what she has gleaned from all the books and seminars it takes to raise five children in today’s world. She is currently working on a book to encourage parents to choose to step back so their kids can move forward on the path to unentitled adulthood. You can find her on Facebook and Instagram @ Ella Herlihy.