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Parents - It's Okay to Let Your Children Fail Sometimes

By Arun Abey - 30th October 2010

As Harvard’s Positive Psychology Lecturer and author of best-selling book Happier, Tal Ben Shahar has spent his life studying what makes people happy. And his mantra to his students is “learn to fail, or fail to learn.”

This can be applied to parenting too. Letting our children experience minor failures, without rushing in to save them, helps them learn key skills that are essential to deal with the inevitable disappointments of everyday life.

Of course when it comes to our children, this can be easier said than done. How do we watch as our children make wrong turns, wander aimlessly or head off down streets we already know are dead ends, without warning them? How can we sit back as they under-prepare for exams, make inadequate effort in homework, or choose not to practice for sporting or music events even when we know the disappointing outcome that will result?

We do it by knowing it will make them happy – not fleetingly, but over the course of their lives. By letting our children struggle, just a little, we help them learn two of the key skills to lifelong fulfilment – developing resilience and finding flow.


Resilience is the ability to endure harsh conditions, great setbacks and the deep sadness that may come, for example, from the death of a loved one, and eventually return to recapture your joie de vivre.

During their lives, as much as we hate to believe it, our children are inevitably going to experience adversity and hardship, which is why to ensure they thrive, we must help them cultivate resilience by letting them experience minor failures.

When our children get a detention for not doing their homework, fail a test or are left off a school sports team, they are able to see how their actions impact directly on outcomes helping them learn problem-solving skills, persistence and inner-strength.


Flow is a state of total engagement where time passes unnoticed. It occurs when our highest skills just meet our highest challenges and research shows finding it is one of the keys to a happy life.

But in order for our children to find flow we must allow them to be challenged, not just remain in their comfort zones. After all we don’t find flow when we are bored...

Tal Ben Shahar calls this place 'outside the comfort zone but before the panic zone, the stretch zone'. This is a learning space that requires children to exercise courage and tolerate a certain amount of fear. It is where flow, optimal functioning and most learning occur.

Failure as opportunity

As parents it’s important to let children know that any failure on their part is normal, expected and even welcome, as it means they are learning and stretching themselves.

Some of the most successful people in the world see their failures, not as failures but as part of the journey to success. Before inventing the light bulb Thomas Edison made more than 1,000 failed attempts which he refused to call failures.

I have not failed 1,000 times” he said. “I have successfully found 1,000 ways not to make a light bulb.”

image Chris Sharp

Comments (4)

I don't have children

But I think we could all do with a bit more failure, or at least a bit more risking failure...

YvetteVignando's picture

JK Rowling Harvard Alumni Address - Failure

There's an outstanding address by J.K. Rowling, author of Harry Potter books, about the importance of failure as well as imagination - I highly recommend watching it

YvetteVignando's picture

Failure and Mobile Phones

For some reason this makes me think of part of a book I am reading at the moment - "The Winter of Our Disconnect" by Susan Maushart. she points out that the mobile phone has made our children less self-reliant and that they tend to protect themselves from the smallest failure or disappointment by its use.

- calling to ask Mum where where the brownie mixture is
- calling to ask Dad why he's 10 minutes late to pick you up
She has a point there I think.


This is such an important issue. Parents have to realise that failure is all apart of learning. We need to fail in order to understand how to be successful. Once a child reaches adulthood the real world is not shielded by parents and can be a difficult world. Not everyone can be a winner all the time, fail and learn from it FULLSTOP!

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