Everyone keeps talking about how it's important to let your kids fail. How do I gauge when it's time to step in to avoid a major setback?


Kathryn deBros, Special Educator, English Teacher

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That's a great question, but it's a tricky one to answer. You have to tune into what your student is thinking and feeling, and what you already know about him/her. Some kids can get frustrated and push through until the end, while some will have a major meltdown if they make even a small mistake. If students believe that those mistakes are a natural and even helpful part of learning, and they see themselves as being capable enough to overcome those challenges, they should be able to figure out a way to make it happen. If the challenge is far too great, the kids will give up. If it's too easy, they won't even bother. This is what teachers call the Zone of Proximal Development, finding that sweet spot where the child feels both challenged (in a good way) and capable.

If you're not sure (although you probably intuitively have a pretty good idea) I would just watch your student tackle a challenge and see what happens. If they seem like they're on the verge of giving up, then maybe it's time to give them a small clue to lighten the mental load. But what is vastly more valuable than a parent stepping in to help, is a parent giving them a tool to be able to help themselves. For example, if a math problem is too hard, solving it for them won't help as much as giving them a strategy to solve it for themselves. This teaches the child two things - first, that you believe they are capable of persevering through challenges, and secondly, that they indeed are capable if they have the right strategy. Next time it happens, they may not give up, they may be able to look for another way of solving a problem rather than asking for help.

I hope that made sense. To sum it up - 1. Mistakes are good. We learn when we make mistakes. 2. The challenge should be suited to a child - hard, but not too hard, is a pretty interesting place to be. 3. Giving strategies is better than giving answers. 4. Watching you persevere through a problem is every bit as valuable as you helping them persevere through a problem - they learn from you!

Good luck!

Lisa Friedman, Inclusive Educator, Religious School Director, teacher, writer & parent

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Hello! Kathryn's response has terrific insight. However, I find myself also wanting to explore if you are asking this question from a solely academic perspective. In other words, were you asking about academic failure or something more broad? Kathryn's advice for academic (and particularly homework-based) situations can certainly be generalized to other situations - but in other life situations there additional nuances to attend to. Keeping our children safe is a parent's first priority, but it is also essential to prepare our children for life independent of us. To better answer this I find myself wondering how old your child is, if he/she has any diagnosed learning issues or disabilities and/or if there are other mitigating emotional issues that add to the complexity of situations?

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