Failure is one of those things that most parents struggle to let their kids experience. But in doing so, we can help teens develop grit and resilience that will set them up for life.

It’s a competitive world and all parents want their kids to have some success in it. I’ve often had a sleepless night worrying about one of my teens and a challenge they’re facing. The problem is when we feel we have to protect our teenagers from failure and in doing so stop them developing a character that is courageous and perseveres when things get tough.

If letting kids fail is a struggle for you, read on to see embracing these disasters is actually exactly what your kids need to become nice and functional adults.

Letting teens experience failure actually helps them develop grit and courage.

The problem of helicopter parenting

I’m sure you’ve heard of helicopter parents, but do you know why this type of parenting limits the ability of kids to deal with failure?

The desire of helicopter parenting is to make life perfect for our kids. It’s driven from a loving and caring place, so most people see these parents are always involved in their children’s activities and very supportive of them. The downside of being a helicopter parent is that there’s a strong desire to protect your children from failure or disappointment, leading to the need to “swoop” in and rescue kids when life gets tough.

Helicopter parents get their needs mixed up with the needs of their kids, particularly when they become teenagers. They feel that when their kids fail that reflects poorly on their ability to care for and love their children. They also tend to focus on what others have done to cause the problem rather than accepting that their child isn’t always perfect.

I don’t think there are a lot of pure helicopter parents, but I do think we can all have a bit of the helicopter hovering in our hearts. I know I often feel guilty for not being all that involved in my teenagers lives, for making them get themselves to different events or not stepping in when other parents do. But I also know that when I can restrain the inner helicopter response, my kids tend to come out stronger on the other side and realise that failure is rarely permanent and often not as bad as we think it might be at the time.

How grit is more valuable that success

If we’re going to master our helicopter natures, we need to have a clear idea of what we’re really wanting to achieve in parenting our teens so we know when to pull back. That’s where it can be helpful not to focus on success or failure, but to look more at the character that’s developing in our children.

I’ve written about the importance of resilience in a previous article; that ability to get back up when something doesn’t quite work out. But the quality that helps kids do this is what Angela Duckworth calls grit.

Grit is a combination of having a clear long term vision and persevering to get there. People with grit have an ability to manage the fear of failure and courageously tackle challenges. As Angela Duckworth says, “they live life like a marathon, not a sprint.” Watch this short video for a better explanation of grit:

This grit is what we want our kids to have! More than success. More than medals, trophies, certificates or anything else that symbolises success. If they can develop a gritty character, they’re not going to fall apart when they experience failure or need us to swoop in and rescue them when things go wrong.

How parents can help kids learn from failure

If we are going to help our kids develop grit, we need to help our kids see failure as a stepping stone, not the end of the journey. Here are five things I think parents should do when their kids stuff up:

  1. Get them to own their failures. Taking responsibility for their actions will help them to find what they can do to get a different outcome next time. If parents fall into the helicopter trap of rescuing their kids they will reinforce the idea that others are always to blame for a child’s lack of success. They may not have control of all the variables in a situation, but it’s important for our teenagers to learn to identify what power and control they do have so they can exercise them appropriately in the future.
  2. Back them up as problem-solvers. Tell them that you know they’re going to work this out, that there’s always a way to work around a problem or disappointment. Encourage them to not give up on themselves and point out any signs you see of them getting close to solving the issue all by themselves. Being a problem solver is an important adult skill our kids need to develop if they’re going to thrive in the workplace, in relationships and generally in life.
  3. Reward perseverance rather than success. Success is fleeting, or may turn out to be less glorious that it was expected to be. The character of our teens should always be the focus of our celebrations, rather than their achievements, because that will stay with them long after the trophy is tarnished or the certificate fades.
  4. Keep your own expectations and needs at bay. Once your child hits their teens, you need to give them permission to start crafting their own life and filling it with their own dreams and desires. There’s nothing wrong with having high expectations of and for our kids, but we also need to recognise that they are our expectations not theirs. And if your natural tendency is to be a helicopter parent, it’s time to recognise which of your own needs are being fulfilled by your involvement and find other ways of meeting those needs rather than diving in to rescue your kids. Mistakes and failure will help your child develop resilience, character, courage and grit, which will make them far nicer people to be around as adults.
  5. Help them to develop a growth mindset. In my article on helping kids deal with disappointment I explained the difference between a growth mindset and a fixed one. It’s worth reading that article to get the full understanding, but essentially, this idea was developed by Carol Dweck and is all about seeing difficulties as learning opportunities and having the courage to keep trying new ways to reach their goals, rather than seeing their current circumstances as the best they can expect in life.

One last point I will make is that I’m not saying that parents shouldn’t step in when kids are struggling with an issue that has become too big for them. A parent’s role is to gradually hand over responsibility and decision making to their child as they inch closer to adulthood. If your child’s decisions or behaviour means that they are facing severe humiliation, would cause a lot of other kids to experience failure, or put their own lives in danger, then it’s appropriate for a parent to step in and help them. The focus should be on helping them though, rather than rescuing, so that in the process of getting out of the problem they’re empowered and learn a lesson for next time.

If you’re wanting to have young adults that can think for themselves, take responsibility for their actions that don’t go well and see failure as an opportunity to grow and learn, then focus on developing grit in your kids now.

What do you think of this concept of grit? Do you think there are times when you should let young people fail and others when you should rescue them? I’d love you to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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