When my oldest was in first grade, I could see that failure was going to be an issue for him. He didn’t like it. He avoided it. When he experienced even a hint of it, it would completely take him off his game – tears, meltdown, the works.
The problem was: he didn’t fail very often.
He’s bright (obviously he must take after his mother - ha!) and so school, sports, and activities came pretty easily to him. The moments when he didn’t ace a test or master a skill were few and far between. Because of that, he never had the chance to build up a tolerance for imperfection. He so regularly accomplished his goals that he rarely got the opportunity to be reminded that the sun would INDEED come up tomorrow even when he fell short of reaching them.
Rather than being pleased with his accomplishments or proud of his abilities to learn quickly, I panicked. It’s because I KNOW what it’s like being a perfectionist. I know the fear of failure and weight of self-expectations to master skills the first time attempted.
That was not a life I wanted for my son. So, I did what any loving mom would do, right?
I prayed for failure.
I prayed he would struggle and bomb at the things he tried. I prayed he would get last place. I prayed he would mess up, make mistakes, and get caught. Mom-of-the-Year stuff here, right?
So, why would I pray those prayers? Typically as parents, we’re expected to and praised for setting our kids up for success. We’re encouraged to lead them and guide them toward right answers, solutions and outcomes. We want them to experience positive results so they are encouraged to keep going.
But, I know this monster called Perfectionism. I’m all too familiar with the fear of failure and how that fear only grows with each success and breezy walk through the park. The more you DON’T experience failure, the scarier it becomes. The more you want to avoid it. More and more you grow accustomed to the warm fuzzies of success, certain that mistakes are cold and, likely, devastating.
I didn’t want that for my son. I didn’t want him trapped by perfectionism without grace for his own or others’ mistakes.
So, I began praying he would fail. I did this in first grade when I knew the consequences were minimal. I knew the cost of first-grade poor choices and mistakes would be low, but the potential cost to his heart down the road if we didn’t nip this failure avoidance in the bud would be exponentially higher. I determined today’s discomfort would be worth tomorrow’s freedom. Fifty-cent crimes and lessons now vs. $5,000 crimes/lessons as a teenager.
Let me let you in on a little secret: God is really faithful about answering these types of prayers. Prayers that address a character issue in our hearts move right up the prayer flagpole.
(My husband once prayed for patience and we spent the following year standing in the longest line in every store we entered. Not a soul would be in the store until it was time for us to check out and suddenly we’d be 15-people deep in line. Awesome.)
But, I believe God so cares about getting our hearts freed from the thoughts and behaviors that hold us back from His best, that when we finally agree with His best for us, He quickly puts a plan in motion to accomplish it.
Back to first grade….over the next month, my son was in the principal’s office four times.
Who even goes to the principal’s office in first grade? No one. Except my son. Ah yes, the faithful fruit of a prayerful mother.
He got into trouble for fighting on the playground. He was talking out of turn in class. He even argued with his teacher about his math assignment.
I should have been thrilled, right? I should have understood God’s goodness in the form of these answered prayers and seen it as a learning moment. It was the perfect opportunity to teach grace and forgiveness and that it’s okay to make mistakes. You know, all that “the sun will come out tomorrow” nonsense I was just preaching.
Yeah, it took me a moment to get there.
Oh, it happened eventually after I woke up and saw the bigger picture. But first, I had to get over myself. I had to get past my own perfectionism coming out as a mom. The second, third and fourth calls from the school stirred up my own avoidance of failure.
And that’s when I realized: the reason most of us parents don’t let our kids fail is because we fear how it will make us look as parents.
If Billy is doing well and not getting in trouble, we’re happy. Everyone thinks we're awesome parents, missing the fact that he’s filled with anxiety and a fear of disappointing us. As long as Susie always appears prepared, we’re pleased. No can accuse us of having an irresponsible kid. Nevermind that we gave her fifty reminders before she walked out the door.
Letting our kids fail is hard. It’s hard on them and it’s hard on us. It’s hard for us to see them disappointed, frustrated, or embarrassed. And it’s hard to admit that their failure can make us feel those exact same things inside as a parent.
But, what if we began to see failure differently?
Scientists fail all the time. Ninety-nine percent of the experiments they attempt each day fail. But, they learn a lot from each and every one of them. Failure isn't something to avoid; it's something that gets us closer and closer to the right answer.
What if we stopped trying to prevent failure in our kids’ lives and embraced those moments as a chance to grow? What if we let our kids make choices, even when we know they’re incorrect, trusting that natural consequences will teach them better than a warning from us can?
That’s courageous parenting right there. Letting our kids fail trusting it will help them grow in the long run. Choosing to disregard public opinion and judgments for their greater good. Instilling grit and perseverance to keep trying even when it's hard. That takes guts.
But, just like your kids, you can do hard things. So, go ahead and let your kids fail. You’ll probably both learn from it.