Opinion

Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist Dr Zirak Marker on Why Letting Kids Fail is Important

Dr Zirak Marker
Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist Dr Zirak Marker on Why Letting Kids Fail is Important

The Success In Failure

From the moment our children are born, that protective parental instinct kicks in after which we become almost fierce in not allowing them to fall, fail, lose or get hurt. While it is absolutely necessary to give them security and work towards building on their self-confidence and achievements, we also need to provide opportunities for learning that come from making mistakes.  

In this ever-competitive parental world, right from a young age, we want what’s ‘best’ for our children. Toddlers are put through hours of preschool interview training, phonics tuitions, gym classes and storytelling groups. No stone is left unturned to ensure these kids get into the school of their choice and after that, there is a new breed of parents emerging called the ‘Snow-ploughing parents’! They will not let anything come in their child’s way of success. They do not allow their child to go through obstacles, challenges or failures - whether it is academic, social, behavioural or emotional. This leaves them unequipped to deal with life in general. They do not have the means to cope healthily through life’s enumerable stressors or difficulties. Thus they’ve never experienced what failure means. 

One of the largest causes of suicide or self-harm is perceived failure. Adolescents or young adults feel that they cannot live up to their parents' expectations or their own. They feel they have let down their families or schools or their friends/peers. They get stressed and overwhelmed with failures in academics, relationships or opportunities.  

We as parents and stakeholders of education need to alter this perception of failure and be able to understand its importance - 

1) Let certain things go wrong: Consider the learning that occurs when a child and a classmate or friend get into a fight and have an altercation. Even though it is unpleasant for both parents and the child, children learn to understand their own feelings and emotions, reflect on their own actions and behaviours, take another's perspective, and in some cases compromise. They decide how they need to resolve the problem, and in most cases do so better than adults. If parents swoop in to fix those problems, children miss out on that critical skill-building that results from learning from mistakes. 

Even in small day to day tasks, it is so important for them to struggle a bit, then perhaps try again and find a way to make it work. It could be managing a household item, figuring out a game or puzzle, electronics or the iPad. It could be navigating them through instructions to build something; allowing them to follow airport signs to find a gate number; giving them such situations in life and asking them what they think they should do.

If a child is able to solve problems on their own, they will be happier, more confident and more independent. They will be able to take the lead and make important decisions for themselves. They will not feel frustrated or anxious when things do not work out as they had planned. 

When your child makes a mistake, don’t berate the child for the mistake but make it into a question of ‘What are you going to learn from it?’ ‘What’s one way you could do that differently?’ - Michele Borba

2) Let academic performance slide: Our biggest worry through school years is academic failure or them not being able to maximise their potentials and take on the challenges. From getting all their homework checked and done (sometimes even actually doing the work ourselves!), making elaborate print outs and artworks for their projects (which is commonly even outsourced nowadays!), to sitting up late into the night solving math problems or reading out answers repeatedly for an exam the next day. Which child will not get complacent and allow all the work to get done for them? There is no independent work and no inner drive and motivation which is so important for any achievements in life. In fact, children develop a sense of false entitlement and get angry or helpless when this support is reduced or withdrawn. 

Further, children who don't have opportunities to fail or struggle and recover have lower self-confidence and a less-developed self-concept. They tend to be more fearful of failure and less willing to try new things because they don't know how they will handle it. It is so important to sometimes let them face consequences and get low marks or even fail. This will make them realise that there’s no substitute for hard work and perseverance. 

They need to take responsibility from within. The minute they achieve the mastery of independence and decide for themselves to make a change - the drive and motivation go up and the results seem more real and valuable to them. 

Stand up for something, even if it means standing alone. Because often sometimes, the one who flies solo, has the strongest wings. 

3) Let them struggle and ask for help: It is so important for children to ask for help and so imperative for us to not give in to imparting all our knowledge or give them quick ready-made answers or solutions. We live in an age of ‘impulsiveness’ and ‘instant gratification’ wherein everything needs to happen here and now. Children don’t have the patience to take the trouble in finding out or researching things; giving a few aspects of life the luxury of time and enjoy the suspense of not knowing things over a few days. They do not want the suspense or have the thirst to build as they’ve never experienced it. We give them most things on demand. Whether it’s a new Lego set, answers of a quiz or research-based answers for a project to something materialistic that they’ve wanted. Gone are those days where we were given two or three weeks to complete a project where we painstakingly cut out pictures from the National Geographic magazines and hand wrote content copied from Encyclopaedias. But those readings and learning have stayed with us for years to come. We were given time to be curious, ‘think’ and reflect. 

Thinking skills are so crucial for cognitive development. We use critical thinking skills every day of our lives. They help us make good decisions, understand the consequences of our actions and helps problem-solving.

The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks. - Christopher Hitchens

4) Letting them see Us fail: It is healthy to allow our children to see and realise that we as parents are not perfect too. Let them watch us struggle, make mistakes, fail, navigate our feelings, brainstorm, ask for help and come up eventually with a strategy or solution and implement healthy coping mechanisms to curb the stress. This is great for role modelling resilience. 

When we as parents have better insight into ourselves, we have more realistic expectations of our children. We need the most effective role models for them in order to harness their Emotional Intelligence. Through this only can we impart the values of gratitude, mindfulness, empathy, acceptance, tolerance and compassion. These are some of the most important learning’s for a child to take on life and it’s challenging. Sometimes the failures are not in our control and can have damaging repercussions in a family.  Yet how we come together during a time of crisis, how we empathise with the situation, accept the problems and generate possible solutions - gives us the ever most important skill and a gift of ‘Resilience.'

Failure is part of life, and if our children don’t have the opportunity to fail or make mistakes, they’ll never realize they can bounce back. That’s what resilience is all about. - Michele Borba.

Dr Zirak Marker Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist Advisor - Mpower Medical Director- The Aditya Birla Integrated School Author - Parenting In The Age of Anxiety.

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