Letting children fail is part of growing up


Editor’s Note – Patrick Lamb, Assistant Principal at Fort Madison High School has started a blog and the Pen City Current has asked to print his blog posts here monthly. We hope you enjoy his articles as much as we do.

Carol Dweck is a woman with incredible foresight. She is one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of motivation. Her research has focused on why people succeed and how to foster success.

She has spoken all over the world and authored four books which are highly acclaimed. Dweck’s “fail forward” mantra has been widely accepted as an agent of change in educational circles, and is becoming a standard of practice in the education of students around the globe. Her research is just as easily adapted to personal life, perhaps more so than in the world of education. As a culture, we have forgotten that athletics in the formative years is not about winning. It’s about growing. Period. Don’t go any further. Leave it at that.


Parents: it’s understandable that you want your child to do well. It’s normal to want your child to have the highest test score, or be told that your first grader is reading at a third-grade level. This seems to be a growing cultural phenomenon, however. It starts early, too. The first thing parents tell their relatives is how long their newborn child is; How much they weigh. These statistics make up the most common social media posts from new parents, along with the cliche “we’re so in love!”, which should go without saying, but is emphatically stated, anyway.

As the child grows into the stage of life that athletic competition becomes commonplace, this cultural phenomenon seems to intensify. Parents seem literally crazy at times as they coach or spectate their children’s sporting events. This has become such a problem that little leagues and youth sports programs are finding it necessary to inform parents that the competitors are kids, coaches are volunteers, and that scholarships won’t be handed out on that day.

I’m not faultless here.

Travel teams are forming for alarmingly young children. Going out of state is worn as a badge of honor. Playing above your age level is like being elected President of the United States. Pointing these things out is not meant to be demeaning to parents who advocate for travel teams. Although, I urge you to carefully monitor the philosophy of the team and the characteristics that your child’s coach is espousing.

This is where it gets tricky. If winning becomes the defining characteristic, failure becomes unacceptable; if failure is unacceptable, participation becomes stressful; if participation becomes stressful, the loves of the game wanes; if the love of the game wanes, quitting becomes commonplace. Either that or we create a subculture of youngsters who are whiny, consumed by their individual abilities, and only worry about what the score is. It’s a vicious cycle!

Failing is normal. It is interwoven into the fabric of our being. It’s how we learn nearly everything in life. And yet, failure somehow has a negative connotation. Parents will do nearly anything to ensure their children don’t fail. This is the wrong approach. How do we expect children to experience success on their own if we will not allow them to fail?

To learn how to respond to failure is the essence of childhood. Using one’s brain to overcome adversity, to think critically, to become a problem-solver, is the hallmark of a healthy individual.

Nearly nobody will care that your child was a state champion when they were in the fourth grade. What does that even mean? Colleges and universities are more concerned about the rigor of the courses a student took than they are with a student’s GPA or class rank. Why? Because rigor means the likelihood of failure.

When you’re sitting around twiddling your thumbs, do some research on the success of valedictorians and salutatorians in relation to other students. You’ll be surprised to find that being such doesn’t carry over into life any more than the student who attained a GPA of 2.50. In fact, because the student with a 2.50 likely dealt with more adversity and failure, that student is just as likely, if not more, to be successful in life.

Technical fields or employers want students with practical experience. They discard almost everything else in a student’s profile. Because relevance drives the need to learn from experiences.

​Let your children fail. When they fall, let them get up on their own. As they get older, resist the urge to coddle them when things don’t go their way. It’s difficult to watch our children experience heartbreak. It’s also necessary. Everyone reading this has experienced it.

As Michael Jordan stated, “I’ve failed, over and over again, and that is why I succeed.” Michael Jordan is one of the greatest athletes of all time. Will you so easily deny his expertise? Letting your child fail will invoke some terrible temporary emotions. You’ll be the bad guy. That’s certain. Later in life, those lessons will evoke other emotions and they will be grateful failure was a part of their experience. View the macro rather than the micro. “fail forward!”

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