Let Them Fail

Let them fail insetMy kid is not so much of a kid anymore. In twenty days’ time, he is twenty-three years old. He’s doing okay; still feeling his way, but nearly all of the self-doubt which surrounded him when he returned from college three years ago has vanished.

You might remember the story, or you can read part one of it here and you can read part two here, of how he left college. Suddenly, without the anchor of the tennis team, he felt he was ‘spinning his wheels, really expensive wheels’ at the small private college which had recruited him for his ability to smack a yellow ball up the line and then deftly angle a volley past an opponent.

Since he returned home from college, it has been an interesting three years.  Early on, we bounced between teen Aaron and young adult Aaron so frequently that it was like playing with one of those paddle ball toys in which a small sponge rubber ball is attached to a cheap wooden paddle with an elastic band. I could have used a sideline official, much like in a Premier League soccer game, who would hold up a sign with one red number and one green number to indicate substitutions. “Now entering the game, number 11 teenager Aaron. Now leaving the game, number 9 adult Aaron. Adapt accordingly.” I must believe that as difficult as this was for us, it was twice as difficult for him. But I digress.

I’ve stopped in at his job at Bed, Bath and Beyond frequently enough to know that he’s become highly competent. It’s not that I’ve spied on him. I do shop regularly at his store, and on those occasions, I’ve watched him deal with pleasant customers and asshat customers, less motivated colleagues and folks on the BB&B corporate fast-track. He’s good at his job. All one needs to know and do to succeed in retail is possessed by my son. Smarts, diligence, and mastery have never been the issue. People skills have been the issue.

As a toddler, he had a temper. As a kid, both little and big, he had a temper. As a teen, he had a temper. In college, he had a temper. He suffered those he considered fools poorly, and that was his downfall.

It was also his rebirth.

We had offered Aaron help with his temper through his young life, but it was not until something he loved and regarded as the bulwark of his life, tennis, was removed because of his temper that he found the courage to change. For better or worse, we are all firmly attached to who we are. Homeostasis is both psychological and biochemical. To see ourselves as others see us, to look in the mirror, see one’s face, and say about one’s worldview that “that’s not working for me” is easy to say. But to say “that’s not working for me, and today is the day I start to solve the problem” is a difficult and courageous statement to make about personal growth.

Yet, he grew.  He’s ready to move on. He knows he has the skills to be successful in life. It was not an easy time.

The most important thing about parenting is to teach compassion to your child. The most difficult thing about parenting, beyond all doubt, is to allow your child to fail.1   Parents, this doesn’t mean you root for your child to fail in the hopes they learn some sort of lesson. Rather, it means that when your child honestly screws up, you don’t barge in to rescue them. You might offer counsel, when asked, but you let them ponder and stew and, for chrissakes, solve that problem. If they cannot figure out how to problem solve under the security of your roof, what is going to happen when they are faced with real problems 900 miles away in another city?

This isn’t about fixing a toilet that runs on, or how to buy new tires for the car, but real problems. What do you do when a colleague at work steals your work, passes it off as her own, and gets the promotion? What do you do when you discover you are not your girlfriend’s only boyfriend? What do you do when you find out the IRS wanted all of the paperwork completed and returned?

It starts small. What do you do when your eight year old doesn’t get invited to the party to which everyone else got invited? It gets bigger. How can a fourteen year old call mom and dad from the cool-kid party where people are getting high for a ride home now, please, without losing cool-kid status? And bigger still. What does one do away at college when a period is missed and pregnancy seems to loom on the horizon?

This should be simple. We take kids to swim practice, and dance practice, and band practice so they can learn and practice skills in a safe environment. Then why the hell don’t you give them the same opportunity to learn and practice life skills in a safe environment? If you think you are Parent of the Year, it does not mean that you prevent all manner of harm from smacking your kid in the face. If you feel that you are the Best Mommy and Daddy ever, it does not mean that your kid never failed. It means that when your kid is somewhere in the twenties, s/he is a happy, compassionate, and capable soul who is ready to take on the world with no need for Mommy and Daddy to pave the way.

We let Aaron fail. After he failed, we; his Mom and her husband, and my wife and I, provided a safe environment for him to lick his wounds and re-group. If you remember Bowlby’s attachment theory, our homes were the safe base from which he could go back out into the world, try out different ways of being, and then return, knowing he would be loved and accepted. He has become a much more compassionate adult than he ever was as a teen. The other stuff? That was never in question.

Aaron is ready, ready to wrestle with the bear.

Let them fail. Let them learn.

Remember, I’m rooting for you. Rooting hard.



  1. I could write 10,000 words about bat-crap crazy helicopter parents based on my days as a high school teacher, but that’s another column. Instead, read this from Psychology Today, January, 2014. And yes, it is at least that bad.


The Beginning
About David Stanley

Teacher & science guy, writer, musician, coach, skier and bike racer, I am interested… in everything; your story, food & spirits and music and everything in the natural world, spirit & sport. My son is 22 and still needs his Dad. I am 56 and so do I.
I blog on life and death, cancer and sports, kids and education at http://dstan58.blogspot.com/

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  1. Larry says:

    Wise words and the advice is sound. But damn its hard. Its even when you and your spouse dont agree about how important it is.

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