I didn’t mean for it to go this way, but this has turned into a mini series on failing successfully. Two weeks ago I addressed why letting our kids fail is important. Simon Sinek is one of my favorite thinkers and his book, Start with Why, is an excellent resource on the importance of understanding why we do the things we do.
Last week I addressed what it actually means to fail successfully. I defined failing successfully as meeting three specific criteria when dealing with failure. First, you must learn the lesson the failure teaches. Second, you must keep trying when you fail. Finally, you must add the accomplishment of overcoming a failure to your success bank.
I have decided to continue and make is a full 5 part series. The goal of the next three articles is to introduce specific actions we can take to help our daughters learn to fail successfully. I believe this is a natural progression from why to what to the how.
Failing successfully is not a natural act. It is a skill. The good news is, just like any other skill, it can be learned. To help our daughters reach greatness one day, we must help them learn this skill now.
Action 1 – Let them fail!
The first (and likely most important) action we must take to help our daughters learn to fail successfully is to actually let them fail. You are probably thinking, “Well, duh! How can you learn a lesson from failure if you never fail?”
On the surface, it sounds simple enough, but many parents really struggle with this concept. In fact, I believe we are in the middle of an epidemic where parents have taken a completely opposite stance on failure. We currently have a generation of kids growing up who have never failed, at anything.
Resilience author Neil Pasricha tells a story in this podcast with Shane Parrish of a time after one of his talks where a dad runs up to him extremely concerned about his son. According to this father, his son was a star athlete and valedictorian of his high school class.
He earned a scholarship to Duke University, graduated near the top of his class, and landed a great job. On his first day of work, his boss provided some critical feedback and the son cratered. He went as far as to tell his dad that he was never going back to that job.
There are probably multiple reasons this young man reacted this way, but I strongly suspect one of the reasons is because this was his very first encounter with failure. I believe this young man did not have the lessons and prior success overcoming failure to fall back on. He did not have a success bank of memories of all the other times in his life he had overcome failure so he did not know how to keep trying.
Everyone feels this same shock, confusion, and hopelessness the first time we fail. Unfortunately for some people, their first encounter with failure is in a high-stakes, real world scenario like a job or marriage.
This is precisely why we must let our daughter fail. Now!
No Engines Allowed
As a father in today’s unique environment, it is crucial for us not to become a helicopter, lawn mower, snowplow, or whatever current phase they are using to describe those parents who remove all obstacles from their kids’ lives.
Dr. Tim Elmore’s article, How to Prevent Becoming a Snowplow Parent, is one of his most popular articles ever. This CNBC article “helicopter parents behave this way because they don’t want their kids to fail, or because they feel personally invested in their child’s success”
There are tons of other stories and examples out today about parents trying to remove struggles or challenges. I can tell you from the experience of working with parents and teens for the past 20 years, these stories are real. Unfortunately, too many parents use this style of parenting and truly believe it is their job to remove any and all challenges from their kid’s lives.
I once had a conversation with a parent who was upset about her son’s test grade. Her son told me in person that he did not study at all for the test. Mom did not care about that part of the story. All she wanted to know was what the teacher was going to do to “fix” this situation.
I tried to explain that part of my job as a high school principal was to help students see the consequences of their choices. She matter of factly told me, “I am not going to let my son ruin the rest of his by a choice he made as a teenager.”
In that conversation, I wanted so badly for that parent to see and understand it was not her son that was ruining his life. It was her who was ruining it by removing obstacles and preventing failure.
Coast Guard Parenting
The parent in my example above was an intentional helicopter mom. Sadly, the reality is, many parents accidentally end up as overprotective decision makers for their daughters. In her book, Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood, Dr. Lisa Damour describes how parents become an accidental helicopter parent.
Dr. Damour states, “Helicopter parents are often created via a two-way process: the daughter seeks the parent’s help for managing nearly every problem that comes her way and the parent agrees to provide the help. The more help the parent provides, the less capable the daughter becomes at managing on her own.”
The scenario starts out innocently enough and goes something like this: A kid does not know what to do and asks for help making a decision. As any good parent should, this kid’s dad does not want her to fail. He tells her what to do. She does it and succeeds.
Unfortunately for this father, he has forgotten from his own childhood that kids are expert energy conservationists. If they can find someone else to think for them, they will. They will happily save that brain power and energy for other activities like texting, social media, or gaming.
As the girl gets older, the decisions get more important and harder to make. Just like she has always done, she keeps asking dad to make the decisions for her. He is on to her game now and tries to put that responsibility back on her. The problem is, she actually does not know how to make important decisions because she has never done it.
The dad recognizes this too. The decisions truly are important and he feels responsible for not teaching his daughter to make her own choices. He doesn’t want her to suffer for his mistake of helping too much early on so he continues to make the decisions. The cycle never ends.
Dr. Damour makes two very interesting observations about, what I am calling coast guard parents. First, cell phones create constant connection where students can ask for help with every struggle, big or small. I believe this creates a sense of urgency to jump in and rescue that previous generations of parents did not have to deal with.
Second, caring parents can’t “resist offering solutions or advice”. In my opinion, western society has created this false narrative that parents must rescue their children at all times. I do not agree with this narrative, but it can easily make us doubt our decisions as parents.
You might be wondering why I am calling these parents “coast guard parents”. Helicopter parents are always hovering over the kids providing advice even without being asked. The coast guard parent is not always hovering. They sit on standby, ready to launch a rescue mission on a moments notice.
Any time a kid asks for help, the coast guard parent jumps into action and provides whatever advice, support, or help their daughter needs. These helpful rescue missions start out innocently enough, but they eventually lead to a crippling scenario where the girl cannot complete a single important task without seeking assistance.
If our goal is for our children to one day make their own important decisions and fail successfully on their own, we cannot jump up and rescue them every time they have an important decision to make or encounter failure as they grow up. Make them make their own decisions and take their own actions now. Coach them through the successes and failures now so you can set them free in the future.
Failing Successfully: The Paradox
Failure at any age is difficult. It is hard to come to grips with the fact the effort we put in to a task was not good enough. This is especially true when we genuinely put in our best effort.
I get it. I want the best for my daughters too. To help them get the best out of life, I need to teach them how to respond to failure and to learn the lessons each failure teaches us. The paradox is you can only learn these lessons by actually failing.
Seeing my daughters fail is still extremely hard, but knowing it is for the greater good and understanding why it is important helps me resist the urge to step in and rescue them. I constantly remind myself that many of our greatest learning moments are in failure. How can our daughter learn to fail successfully if I never let them fail?
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