Thursday, December 3, 2009

Failure can be good for kids

“What can we do to prevent our son from failing in English?” asked the parents of a high school freshman. Getting an “F” in any class meant that their son would be unable to play high school sports for a semester. “Failure is not an option,” remarked the dad, repeating an inspirational quote from the Apollo 13 movie.

I met with their son Jack for an hour and then reviewed his academic record. My meeting with Jack and his parents was not what they expected.

“Failure is the best option for your son,” I declared. There was an uneasy silence in the room. My recommendation went against every instinct of these dedicated parents and was incomprehensible to their overprotected son.

Isn’t our job as parents to protect our kids from harm? We do everything we can to ensure our children’s physical health, having them wear seat belts in cars, exercise on padded surfaces at playgrounds, and send them to school with bottles of hand sanitizer.

Shouldn’t we be just as concerned about our kids’ psychological health as we are about their physical safety?

Why is failure more important than football for Jack?

Personal responsibility. Jack’s overprotective parents have always been there for him, rescuing him from his own irresponsibility. In the real world, there is a relationship between what you do and what happens to you. Although 14-years-old, Jack has yet to learn that connection. His parents have been a buffer from life’s disappointments and rejections.

Coping skills. Life is a journey filled with occasions of great happiness interspersed with unpredictable times of frustrations, rejections, and conflict. How we navigate those tough times defines who we really are. Positive coping behaviors are critically important for our kids. Such skills include keeping a positive attitude, reaching out to friends for support, looking for creative solutions to problems, and getting enough sleep and exercise. Kids can’t learn those skills if they never have to deal with any significant rejection or disappointment. Kids who are hooked on success have a hard time with failure. These young adults may turn to drugs, alcohol, and even become depressed when dealing with frustration.

Persistence. One of the world’s greatest inventors, Thomas Edison, was also one of the greatest failures of his generation. He tested and was wrong over 6,000 times with various materials for the filament of the electric light bulb. One of Edison’s greatest attributes was his relentless persistence. “I have not failed. I just found 10,000 ways that won’t work,” remarked Edison.

Failing English may be the best thing for Jack’s psychological health. He’ll learn that his parents will not always be there to rescue him from his own irresponsible behavior. He may learn something about more efficient study habits. Perhaps he’ll even get excited about some of the assigned literature that he never bothered to read.

Unlike Apollo 13, failure may indeed be the best option for Jack.

Gregory Ramey, Ph.D., is a child psychologist and vice president for outpatient services at The Children’s Medical Center of Dayton. For more of his columns, visit

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