Virtually every kid has left homework on the kitchen table or a lacrosse stick in the trunk at some point during childhood. But doesn’t any good parent turn the car around or run the assignment to school?
Absolutely not, argues Jessica Lahey, a middle-school teacher, parent, and best-selling author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed — even if it’s league-championship day or a term paper that’s left behind. Over-parenting or fostering dependence, as she describes bailout behavior, has the potential to undermine children’s personal confidence and robs them of the grit they’ll need to succeed in the real world, after they’ve left the safe bubble of home.
“Kids who are allowed to fail and face the consequences of their failures learn how to rebound, regroup, and adapt, taking the good stuff from the experience forward with them, while leaving behind the parts that don’t work,” Lahey told Science of Us. While she acknowledges that failure can sound terrifying to parents, it doesn’t have to. “When we rescue our kids from consequences, we short-circuit that cycle of learning,” she explained, “which can result in dependent, emotionally stunted kids who never learn how to adapt to the world around them.”
And she doesn’t limit her educational philosophy to just letting kids and young adults experience relatively gentle setbacks. Bigger things, such as failing a class or failing out of school, getting arrested or “getting lost in the big, bad world feel dire in the moment,” Lahey explained. But she believes all of these things can be incredible turning points, moments of crisis that prompt serious learning and practical skills.
In fact, researchers have found that the ability to recover from adversity is crucial for later benchmarks of success. Their study shows that “grit”— or perseverance — was a stronger predictor of completing high school, making the final rounds of the National Spelling Bee, completing the Army Special Operations Forces selection course, or staying married (for men, at least), than intelligence scores or physical aptitude. Recently, psychologists have also shown that some parents fall into a “protection trap” and that a healthy dose of fear can be a good learning experience. “The more a child avoids a situation that may be scary, the scarier it becomes because they don’t have a chance to overcome it,” Lindsay Holly, co-author of the study, said in a news release. “They aren’t given the chance to develop the coping skills or strategies to deal with the situation appropriately.”
At the same time, letting children from more affluent homes fail may have different ramifications than for those who come from less-well-off ones. It’s generally easier to rebound when a family has resources. Race may skew the benefits of failure, too. A 2014 report looked at how five racial groups met life milestones from birth to high school, finding significant disparity between Latino, black, and Indian-American children versus white and Asian and Pacific Islanders (the highest scorers). To children who confront a myriad of social challenges, failures may simply breed more obstacles rather than space for growth.