Failsafe: the practice of letting kids try

letting kids fail


A few weeks ago, Calvin’s soccer team lost a championship game in overtime. It was a true heartbreaker: tied for nearly the entire game, the match concluded in penalty kicks…an intense, hyper-stressful one-on-one situation in which Calvin played a major role. As the team’s rookie goalie, he faced a round of five shots on his goal…and missed every ball.

The parents next to me on the sidelines were sympathetic: Poor Calvin. Such pressure. He’s still learning. They smiled and patted my shoulder. Poor Mom, too. I sure wouldn’t want to be driving home in your car. I nodded, but I wasn’t worried about a silent or sob-filled commute. As the team came off the field, heads belt, shoulders slumped, Calvin appeared fine. Bummed, maybe, but by no means devastated. He accepted condolences on the outcome of the game, then turned to other matters: would we be stopping to eat on the way home? Because he was starving.

It wasn’t that he didn’t care. He did care. He, and our other kids, set regular, tangible goals, and work hard to reach them. His latest had been winning the tournament they’d just lost. But for Calvin, losing is ok. Not fun, by any means. Downright crappy, actually. But not the end of the world as he knows it. Why? Because we’ve made it ok.

Our kids understand that no meaningful accomplishment is achieved without failing at least once first. They’ve seen it firsthand with their dad and me. Not to put too fine a point on it, but we fail all the time. We’re not afraid of it, and we don’t want the kids to be, either. There’s a certain sense of freedom in getting comfortable in that prickly place, rolling around inside defeat and throwing a few punches. Without that, there’s no risk-taking, and without that, well, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, and all that. We also succeed a fair amount of the time. I let the kids in on the secret to both: set a goal that scares you, try to achieve it, repeat. Life is a numbers game.

We’ve been known to joke that our kids will try anything once. And if kids are allowed to try, then they’re allowed to fail. When failure is an acceptable option on the table, nothing can stop them from reaching further, stretching taller, and jumping higher. You know that mom on the playground always hovering under the climbing structure, biting her nails and calling to her kid (and other people’s kids) to ‘be careful’ and ‘hang on tight’? In my kids’ younger years, I was the mom sitting as far away as possible, pretending not to hear her as she warned my boys ‘they’d fall’.

Because of course they’d fall, eventually. (That’s what ERs are for, right?) When falling is made into the worst possible, unspeakable outcome, kids stop. They grip the handrail and climb carefully back down. And I think that’s the saddest sight on any playground.


6 thoughts on “Failsafe: the practice of letting kids try

  1. I hear you. I have to admit to overdoing the “Be Careful” at times, especially as they get older and do things like drive and go to parties and take the train down to the city with friends. It’s a tight rope we walk, isn’t it? Between expecting best effort and welcoming failure, between giving them freedom and giving them limits.

    • As they get older, a whole new set of worries set in for me, and I imagine I’ll error more on the side of caution. I have no idea how to navigate the teen years yet!

  2. Exactly! Yes!

    I always tell my kids that the worst thing isn’t that they might not succeed, but that they might not even try. We talk a lot about how you learn more from your “failures” than you do from your successes.

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