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Why I want my kids to fail

By Lianne Zilm 4 min read
Thursday, February 18, 2021

I have posed a challenge to my kids: To try something that they may potentially be bad at.

When my eldest son was four, I enrolled him in a multi-sport program. My main purpose was to expend some of his excess energy, but also because I wanted him to try out the different sports to see what he would be good at.

He enjoyed "hitting" sports like tennis and T-ball, and fared okay in basketball and athletics, but we noticed a change in attitude when the time came to trying out soccer. He initially started with a positive attitude; then when he was trying to score a goal, he missed and tripped over the ball. Later on, the coach asked the kids to dribble the ball, which my son realised was rather difficult to do.

Between throes of “I don’t like this sport!” and “I can’t do it!”, he got progressively more annoyed and by the end of the class, had decided he was done with sports.

Not much more was discussed, but when the following week came along, he remembered his decision. I don’t remember exactly how I convinced him to get into the car and to participate in class, though it is possibly linked to a reward for compliance. However, this experience made me realise the importance of equipping my children to face things that they find difficult.

Failure and resilience

Many parenting experts talk about raising resilient children. Though their methods may vary, the general concepts are similar. From what I understand, it requires us to take a step back and to allow children to step out of their comfort zones. Rather than rushing to their aid, as much as we want to do so, our role is to provide them with the skills and moral support to deal with the disappointment and discomfort of failure.

Trying something with the risk of failing can help our children develop a healthy relationship with fear. My five-year-old son is facing one of the classic childhood dilemmas: Learning how to ride a bike without training wheels. For context, he has been riding a balance bike since he was two, so he has the balance sorted, but he will not ride the pedal bike unless I am or my husband is holding onto him.

While reassuring him that his feelings of uncertainly are valid, we also want to help him build confidence and independence, which can only be done by stepping back. Only when we let go of the bike will he have some opportunity to succeed and soar down the path. If he falls, we will wipe those tears, put band-aids on any scrapes and encourage him to get back on that bike and try again. I am sure the grit will pay off—there are not many emotions that top the feeling of overcoming a fear!

Attempting things that are difficult is also character-building. This reminds me of when my eldest son started learning to play the piano. It was his idea to learn the piano and he had a list of songs he wanted to learn how to play. However, he soon realised that it might take a while before he could master "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star", let alone the PJ Masks theme song. Piano practise sessions were accompanied by a bit of foot stamping and book throwing, but to date, he is still persevering and progressing.

I do my best to remember to empathise with him. I remind him that when I was a kid, I felt the same frustration when I was learning to play the piano. I agree with him that it is hard, but that is why it feels so much more satisfying when he actually gets it right. I celebrate with him when he manages to play a full piece without mistakes and take a video of his effort to send to his grandma to watch.

Encouraging failure

But what if they really are bad at something and do not show much progress? I also think that trying something with zero expectations of being good at it just takes the pressure off kids, particularly at a time where stress is at an all-time high.

Last year, on the spur of the moment, I signed my boys up to try lacrosse. I knew it wasn’t the easiest sport, not to mention they had never played a team sport before. I told them that we were going to go to a sports class where they would get to throw a ball into a goal using a stick (how fascinating!) and to just join in and have fun. I think they spent the whole of the first class running after the ball while laughing because they couldn’t pick the balls up with their lacrosse sticks. They made a number of faux pas during team games, including not passing, passing to the other team and scoring in the wrong goal.

While I did notice some progress through the term, I was most pleasantly surprised that they looked forward to each class and just had fun, without feeling the pressure to compare themselves with their other more skilled classmates.

As this school year started, I have posed a challenge to my kids: To try something that they may potentially be bad at, and to stick with it for at least one term, or however long the program may run for. For my mathematically-minded seven-year-old, that may be learning how to dance or act in a play. My sporty five-year-old son may decide to pursue a musical instrument, though will it be the violin or the ukulele? While my two-year-old has a big personality at home, she is shy in big groups, which is precisely why I feel I need to get her participating in a group activity.

Who knows, they might find that they are really good at what they try and make a friend or two in the process! Or they may come out of it with a life lesson in commitment, determination and humility. And that, in my books, is a win-win!

Lianne Zilm is a mother of three children under eight and lives in Adelaide. She is also the moderator of our Adelaide Mums At The Table group and regularly organises meet-ups with mums.