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“I think you are going to have to let him fail… ”.
I often have found myself telling parents this over the years. I’ve said it as a pastor to parents whose kids are in my ministry. I’ve also said it to parents whose kids are in therapy with me.
It’s much harder to face with my own kids.
I always follow that statement about failure with a caveat. The caveat goes something like this: “I am sitting over here in my chair and I’m not the parent. I have a certain emotional distance from the relationship and situation than you have. So as a parent, I don’t know what I would do, but as a pastor and therapist I think we need to let him fail…”
Not exactly the response that most parents are looking for.
This is the deep tension we face when we talk about watching kids fail. No matter how much we try to intervene to keep failure from happening, the reality is that we have little control over what our kids do or over the outcomes that result.
At the end of the day, our kids are free beings who make choices. And those choices often lead to failure.
A Theology of Failure
If you Google the phrase “theology of failure,” you might find quotes, articles, and a mention of a book or two. But for something as pervasive in our lives as failure, it’s surprising how few resources are available.
As a Christian, I read the Bible and it seems like one long narrative on failure. From the outset in Genesis, we find Adam and Eve failing at living out God’s command not to “eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil.” (Genesis 2:17) As the narrative progresses, we are witness to God’s chosen people, the Israelites, experiencing one failure after another. Even when Jesus enters the scene in the New Testament, failure doesn’t take a hiatus. Instead failure is implicit in every narrative moving forward. Whether it was Peter cutting off the servant’s ear , (John 18:10) Paul persecuting Christians, (1 Corinthians 15:9) or Thomas doubting, (John 20:24-31) the Bible is full of failure.
Yet failure is not the end of the story. For every failure in the lives of people in the Bible, there is a God who is constantly in the process of taking failure and redeeming it into something life-giving.
One of the things that I point out in The Anxious Christian 1 is that so many of us go around quoting Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” But rarely do we back up to verse 10 where the Lord reminds them that they will go through 70 years of captivity in Babylon. When we divorce verses 10-11 from each other, we can begin to see how we easily remove failure from our narrative, focusing only on the triumph.
Fear of Failure
Jessica Lahey wrote in The Atlantic about “Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail.” 2 Lahey cites a study out of Queensland University of Technology on the concept of “overparenting” which is described as parents’ “misguided attempt to improve their child’s current and future personal and academic success.” There is growing anecdotal evidence among teachers in particular about “a whole new level of overprotectiveness: parents who raise their children in a state of helplessness and powerlessness, children destined to an anxious adulthood, lacking the emotional resources they will need to cope with inevitable setback and failure.” (Ibid.)
The tension between putting pressure on kids to succeed and the reluctance to let them fail is usually present when I teach parenting classes. I find that I can’t ignore the number of kids I have been working with over the last 18 years who have been crumbling under pressure to succeed at all costs. One particular conversation that stands out is when I was teaching through Madeline Levine’s book, The Price of Privilege 3. A parent whose daughter was overinvolved in activities questioned me when I suggested focusing on only one or two activities at a time. The parent shot back, “What if my kid is good at doing 67 things at a time?” I didn’t know how to respond other than to say, “Just because they are good at doing 67 things at a time doesn’t mean they should do so much.” The tragic irony of the debate was that the parent’s daughter was in counseling for anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts because of her fear of failure.
Judith Warner, author of Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety 4 writes about Levine’s work in the New York Times. She begins by describing the “self-loathing and grief” that one high school girl experienced after failing to get into her top-choice college, and goes on to describe what failure means for many other young people:
“Other kids cheat, take drugs, drink, shut down, or, worse still, keep up their tightrope act of parent-pleasing, Ivy-aiming high achievement while quietly, invisibly dying inside. ‘The cost of this relentless drive to perform at unrealistically high levels is a generation of kids who resemble nothing so much as trauma victims,’ Levine writes. ‘They become preoccupied with events that have passed—obsessing endlessly on a possible wrong answer or a missed opportunity. They are anxious and depressed and often self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. Sleep is difficult and they walk around in a fog of exhaustion. Other kids simply fold their cards and refuse to play.’" 5
Moving Toward —Not Away From—Failure
As I look at failure in the Bible narrative, it seems inevitable that failure is part of our lives. But it’s not just a stagnant part of our lives that bears no meaning; rather it often seems to be the crucible through which God reaches into our lives. Our failures become the transforming work of God, a fertile ground that helps us live more in line with who he has created us to be.
So the question becomes, If failure is inevitable, how do we not try to prevent it by putting pressure on our kids, but instead enter into the messiness of failure and walk alongside our kids?
Where Do Parents Start?
There are a lot of places we can begin when it comes to failure. Let me give several suggestions here that can be a starting platform for us in how we view failure.
Realize that failure is inevitable in the lives of our kids. No matter what rules we set or how much we try to protect our kids, they are going to fail. Knowing this ahead of time is important for when our kids start experiencing failure. And though we may intellectually know this, believing it and living it out in our lives is hard.
Reframe failure as an opportunity for growth in your life and the lives of your kids. Instead of viewing failure (your kids’ or your own) as a dead-end road, what could this failure teach? Ask questions of the failure such as, “How did he/she/we get here? What is God trying to teach me through this failure? How can I grow in the midst of this failure?”
Start letting your kids fail at a young age. The impact of a kid failing at age 2 and 5 is often much less than failing at 17 and 20. Often parents work so hard to keep their kids from failing that for many, the first time they experience failure is when they get to college or try to enter the workforce. When a young person fails for the first time as a young adult, they often lack experience or wisdom to lean into that will help them work through and reshape their failure. It may ultimately be better to have your kid miss the winning goal at age 5 and experience that disappointment than to experience their first failure when they are kicked out of high school for drug and alcohol abuse at 17.
Move toward your kids when they fail. Young people often tell me stories about how their parents withdrew from them when they failed. They experienced physical withdrawal from the relationship, or silent disapproval. When we withdraw from our kids in the midst of their failures, we send the message that failure is not an option. We communicate to them that they are loved, accepted, and wanted based on their ability to perform. Instead, what would it look like to move toward your kid with empathy and understanding when they fail? It could be a huge opportunity for both of you to grow and learn from failure.
Introduce your kids to the Bible narrative and all the failures that ensue. Show them a God who is in the business of transforming failures and lives for good purposes. The Bible reminds us that failure is messy business, but we have a God who sent his son to be part of that mess. We too need to be part of the mess of our kids’ lives when they fail.
Ask yourself as a parent: What does my kids’ failure teach me? A lot of times when kids fail, a parent’s reaction is very telling. It tells us that parents have more wrapped up in the success of certain things than their kids. It tells us that parents often live their lives through their kids, and each failure is a failure for the parent. Let your kids’ failure help you probe deeper into your own life and what is going on internally.
Perhaps you can share a story of your failure with your kids. Though many parents may be ashamed of past failures, sharing with your kids some of your failures can help in a couple of different ways. First, it can humanize you as a person. You are someone who has made mistakes; your kids need to hear that. Second, it provides a reminder for them that God works in the midst of our failures to bring about redemption and new opportunities. Sharing your past failures and your current hope helps bridge the gap for kids when they have failed. You become an example of what it looks like to move through failure.
Taking Action: What You Can Do Today
I often have very little time in a 45-minute therapy session with a family to suggest too many steps. So I usually want to give parents something they can do immediately. Here are three suggestions you can implement today:
Ask your kids what they perceive as your expectation around failure. You might ask questions like, “Is it okay to fail? What is your perception of how we would feel about you, or think about you, if you failed? If you failed, how do you imagine the worst case scenario for your failure…and is that reality?”
Reframe failure for them as an opportunity to learn and grow. Tell them that you will be on this journey with them. Share a story of your own failure and how you grew from it.
Introduce them to parts of the Bible where failure happens, and show them how God steps into that failure and redeems it. Highlight for them that God loves them regardless of their failures.
Working through failure is messy business, but if you begin to take these small steps today, over time you can create a safe space for you and your kids to talk about failure.
1. Smith, R. The Anxious Christian: Can God Use Your Anxiety for Good?, Moody Publishers, Chicago, IL. 2012.
2. Lahey, J. Why Parents Need to Let Their Children Fail, January 29, 2013.
3. Levine, M. The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids. Harper Perennial, 2008.
4. Warner, J. Perfect Madness: Motherhood in the Age of Anxiety. Riverhead Books, 2006.
5. Warner, J. “How to Raise a Child—Teach Your Children Well by Madeline Levine.” New York Times. July 27, 2012.
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