Why letting our children fail (sometimes) helps them succeed

taking risks

taking risksThis is one of my favourite pictures.

My then 11-year-old daughter is showing off how well she rides without hands on the handlebars. You can’t see her face but if you did, it would be the kind of pure exhilaration you only see in children. The absolute pleasure in the skill, the sensation, the slight frisson of danger. She is totally in the moment, in a way adults rarely are.

You also can’t see my face. It would be a study in contrasts. On the one hand, I’m biting my lip. I want to yell “be careful!” or “hold on!” but I don’t. Because I also remember what it’s like to be a kid riding my bicycle without holding on to the handlebars. And I was loving that she got to experience that feeling herself.

Close your eyes and remember: The air rushed past your face, and the front wheel wobbled slightly but you held steady by shifting your muscles just so. Your blood rushed in your ears and your pulse raced. You knew you had mastered something great, a cool trick that’s a rite of passage for many kids. One that your mom may not totally enjoy.

If you look closely, you’ll see she’s on a bike path, not a busy road. She’s wearing a helmet. It’s true she might fall and break something or need stitches, but that’s unlikely. It was the kind of risk parents need to encourage our kids to take, because risk-taking isn’t always a bad thing. After all, if we didn’t take risks we would never have put a man on the moon. We would never have tried (and succeeded) at transplanting human organs and saving many lives.

A recent article in Forbes Magazine outlined seven parenting behaviours that keep children from growing up to be good leaders, and the one that resonated most for me was failing to let them experience risk. Natural consequences are the very best teachers, after all. How else do you learn that not studying for the exam leads to lousy marks? That going outside in frigid temperatures without proper outerwear makes you cold? That soccer really isn’t your game?

One of favourite writers on this topic is neuro-psychologist Dr. JoAnn Deak. She talks and writes extensively about brain biology and how understanding the changes our kids are going through should inform how we parent them (you can read more about that in this blog post about teen girls, and this one about the importance of fathers). But one of her prime takeways for me as a mom was the concept of brain elasticity. She says that research has shown the brain grows most rapidly during the first two decades of life (and especially in the first 10 years). Neurons and pathways are being built at an astonishing rate. This is important because kids can — and need — to be taught to face their weaknesses and fears and correct them while they are still young enough to do so easily. Little girls who react with fear to stressors need to be taught strategies for facing them. Little boys who react with aggression need to be taught to slow down, control their impulses and think before they act.

How does Dr. Deak suggest they do that? She calls it “hugging your monster.” A child afraid of swimming? You need to get them in the water. Find increments that suit this child’s temperament (no throwing them straight into the deep end), but make sure they learn to swim. Afraid of public speaking? Get up and speak to groups every chance you get.

Now this is important not just because it teaches kids to face and overcome their fears. That’s cool, but it’s not the only or even the most important reason. The need to do it because their brains are elastic enough to build new neural pathways to accommodate these changes in behaviour: it literally makes them more intelligent over time.

But they also need to do this because it helps them overcome the “mistake filter” that stops many kids (especially girls, according to Dr. Deak) from taking those risks in the first place. Learning requires us to make mistakes, sometimes lots of them. Toddlers fall a lot before they learn to walk (and then run). Athletes fall over. Businesses fail.

If we let ourselves be held back by the fear and anticipation of those failures, we would never accomplish anything. And we all want more for our kids.

So learn to bite your tongue just a little bit. Encourage your kids to push themselves a little bit out of their comfort zones, to hug their monsters. Offer hugs and dry their tears when (and if) they aren’t successful, and then send them back out again. You aren’t letting them down if they fall;  you are teaching them to lift themselves up.




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