The gift of failure

We have taught our kids to fear failure, and in doing so, we have blocked the surest and clearest path to their success.

I just read the book; The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed by Jessica Lahey. There are so many takeaways from this book with sound advice both to teachers and parents. I plan on making a presentation around this when I welcome our new parents and students this fall. I will give some of the highlights I found here, but I recommend that you buy and read the whole book. 


  1. Students have sacrificed their natural curiosity and love of learning at the altar of achievement, and it’s our fault.
  2. The less we push our kids toward educational success, the more they will learn. The less we use external, or extrinsic, rewards on our children, the more they will engage in their education for the sake and love of learning.

Setting Goals

  1. Self-imposed goals are about the safest place there is for a kid to fail. If kids make up their own goals, on their own timeline, according to their criteria, then failure is not a crushing defeat. Goals can be amended, changed according to circumstances, and even postponed to maybe next week. For kids who are particularly afraid and anxious about failing, goals offer a private proving ground, a safe way to take risks, fail, and try again.
  2. If we really want our kids to invest in long-term goals, those goals have to be their goals, not ours.
  3. Competence requires both ability and experience, and confidence alone can lead to disaster.

Growth mindset

 Dr. Dweck coined the terms fixed mindset and growth mindset to describe the underlying beliefs people have about learning and intelligence. When students believe they can get smarter, they understand that effort makes them stronger. Therefore they put in extra time and effort, and that leads to higher achievement. Those with growth mindsets are motivated to learn for learning’s own sake because they believe that by pushing and stretching themselves they can do more and become more accomplished. They thrive on challenge and understand that failing and trying again is part of becoming smarter, better, or faster. If they discover limitations in themselves, they search for ways to overcome these challenges. “The hallmark of successful individuals is that they love learning, they seek challenges, they value effort, and they persist in the face of obstacles,” writes Dweck.

When we save them from risk and failure, we communicate to our kids that we don’t have faith in their ability to grow, improve, and surmount challenges, and we encourage a fixed mindset.

Desirable difficulties lead to mastery

A popular buzzword in education today is mastery, and mastery demands retrieval. Students need to be able to recall information and apply it, connect it to other disciplines, demonstrate it for someone else, or otherwise, render that information useful in their world. Teachers understand that you don’t really know something until you can teach it to someone else, and this is because being able to teach information requires all three parts of the learning equation: encoding, consolidation, and retrieval. In East Asia there is a common belief that anyone can and should be able to achieve a certain degree of mastery in a variety of areas, whether it be mathematics, art, music, or physical education. It just takes effort.

Learning that comes with the challenge is stored more effectively and more durable in the brain than learning that comes easily. It turns out that the easier it is to retrieve information, the less durable the information is in your brain. So the harder you have to work to retrieve and apply knowledge in a novel way, the more durable that knowledge will be encoded.

Executive function 

The skills students need to survive high school and life is what psychologists call executive function, or the collection of skills and mental processes that allow us to manage our time, resources, and attention in order to achieve a goal. It’s not coincidental that the students whose parents bail them out and don’t allow them to deal with the consequences of these failures, develop these skills more slowly.

The key to helping kids create the systems they need to gain executive function is to let them fail, let them feel the pain and inconvenience of their mistakes, and then support them in their efforts to rework the bugs. Try, fail, suffer a little, remedy, try again.

When these kids are not allowed to fall and pick themselves up, they never learn how to tolerate disappointment, manage their relationships, take responsibility for themselves, or cope with the anxiety of not getting what they want. I frequently pose this question to parents who are afraid to let go: “How do you expect your child to be an adult if you never let them learn how?” Our job is not to protect them from their failures along the way, but to help them cope with setbacks as they occur, because when they move out of their childhood home and begin to forge their own path, they are going to need all the resources and tools we can give them.

Responsibility, giving room to fail

At a recent conference of independent school guidance counselors, one of the counselors asked for help getting one of her advisees to understand the reasoning behind the failing grade he’d received for a plagiarized science term paper. The student was angry with the teacher and with his counselor and viewed the failing grade as an unfair punishment that put his scholarship at risk. His parents were furious and had threatened to sue the school over the situation. “I just don’t understand this mentality,” she told the room. “Everyone is blaming me, his teacher, and the school, and no one seems to be talking about the fact that he chose to cheat. No one seems to care that this is a lesson the student needs to learn. This kid wants to be a scientist. Just imagine if he plagiarized a scientific paper in ten years in the professional world; it would mean the end of his career. Isn’t it better that he learn about the consequences of plagiarism in high school rather than later?”

education is to shift the focus off grades and onto goals. Because goals are self-determined rather than teacher-determined, they can be a much more useful measurement of success. When kids establish their own goals for learning, they gain a sense of ownership and competence. Earning high marks can provide a temporary high, particularly when a kid has worked hard, but achieving a specific and self-determined goal always transcends the rush of a straight-A report card.


Teachers can become powerful and reassuring allies in the confusing world of high school, and these relationships can make for meaningful and emotionally powerful letters of recommendation when it’s time to apply for college or scholarships.

Choosing subjects in school

The second year of high school in Norway is challenging. And if the students have chosen subjects because they like them, it’s going to be a great year for them. They will work really hard and learn a lot. However, if students have made the choices because that is what the parents want,  this is going to be one very difficult year for them. The key word here is choice. And it should be theirs, if you want them to find ownership and pride in their learning and growth. Give me a kid with a passion for learning, a kid who has demonstrated some measure of autonomy and motivation. Give me a kid who knows his or her mind. But these things are harder to come by if the child has been tutored and handheld from birth.


I just love this advice; Locate your mute button. It is probably the most important advice. And then follows, be involved in your kids’ learning, but be aware;  There is a difference, between being involved in your child’s learning and taking over. Kids who are praised for effort are more likely to have a growth mindset, the understanding that intelligence and capability can be improved with effort. Praise for effort, not inherent qualities. Praise for effort, not inherent qualities. Let your children feel disappointed by failure. And also to show up at school with an attitude of optimism and trust. Read the school’s rules and regulations and project an attitude of respect for education. Model enthusiasm for learning.  Be sure to communicate with the teachers in a positive way, and wait a day before emailing a teacher over a perceived emergency or crisis. Wait a day to complain about homework, assignments, disciplinary actions, and the like. Remember that truth often lies between two perceptions. And if you are concerned with a teacher’s actions, talk to the teacher, don’t go to the principal. Support the student-teacher partnership, even if it is challenging. And above all, keep grades in their proper perspective. 

When parents step in to defend a child’s poor choice or mistake or failure in order to avoid the “consequence” of that action or performance, they tend to lose sight of the fact that if the student does not have the experience of making mistakes and living and learning with the consequence of that mistake or failure, the rest of his/her life will be a very difficult experience since everyone will eventually have to manage on their own. Mistakes are opportunities to grow. Failures or unsuccessful attempts are the same, and students need to live through those experiences to develop a toolbox of coping mechanisms to lift them and move them forward.

Teacher, administrators, and parents

When all 3 are working together to protect the students it will always be the best solution. The best situation is when the school gets the support from the parents and the students see that the school and the parents are united. The ideal situation is when after an incident of posting something inappropriate online, teachers and administrators research the incident, figure out who was responsible and contacted parents within hours to let them know the school will instigate appropriate school disciplinary steps in response to their children’s actions.

One comment

I would love to hear from you