Light at the Beginning of the Tunnel (#8): The Inoculation of Failure

Many of us are guilty of “helicopter parenting”: a colloquial term that has come to signify overbearing parents that try to control their children’s surroundings and intervene in their children’s every problem. The paradox with this method is that when we try to hover around our children, moving heaven and earth in the maelstrom of our chopper wings in an effort to sweep all things away that have the potential to make our children feel bad, we are actually doing them a disservice. I believe if we keep our children from ever feeling what it’s like to fail, we are ultimately setting our children up for failure itself. Failure has its benefits, especially in childhood, as kids are learning to navigate the world. Because ultimately, the sooner we learn how to fall, the sooner we learn how to pick ourselves up. The sooner we learn to pick ourselves up, the sooner we learn to dust ourselves off and move on with our lives. And the sooner we move on with our lives after failure rears its ugly head, the sooner happiness returns.

Paul Tough describes the problem well in a 2011 New York Times magazine piece entitled “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?” He explains: “We have an acute, almost biological impulse to provide for our children, to give them everything they want and need, to protect them from dangers and discomforts both large and small. And yet we all know — on some level, at least — that what kids need more than anything is a little hardship: some challenge, some deprivation that they can overcome, even if just to prove to themselves that they can. As a parent, you struggle with these thorny questions every day, and if you make the right call even half the time, you’re lucky. But it’s one thing to acknowledge this dilemma in the privacy of your own home; it’s quite another to have it addressed in public, at a school where you send your kids at great expense….”

He goes on to describe educators in the New York City school system who are trying to create “grit” in young students, which is the toughness and determination that comes after adversity. Dominic Randolph, the head of an exclusive private school in the Bronx where they have done some interesting experiments with teaching children character traits rather than just academics, puts it as: “The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure. And in most highly academic environments in the United States, no one fails anything.” Tough says that these educators want students to succeed, of course — it’s just that they believe that in order to do so, they first need to learn how to fail. And one of the main problems they encounter is parents getting in the way of this. Tough describes educators reporting that they “see many parents who, while pushing their children to excel, also inadvertently shield them from exactly the kind of experience that can lead to character growth. As Fierst (one of the educators) put it: “Our kids don’t put up with a lot of suffering. They don’t have a threshold for it. They’re protected against it quite a bit. And when they do get uncomfortable, we hear from their parents. We try to talk to parents about having to sort of make it O.K. for there to be challenge, because that’s where learning happens”.”

Judaism does not shy away from challenges, even though by nature of a challenge you are opening yourself up for potential failure. In fact, through our life’s challenges, we are told that we will grow, refine ourselves, and according to some, even achieve our purpose in life. As the Ramchal states in the Messilat Yesharim (The Path of the Just), the purpose of life is actually to confront a series of challenges that are given to us each individually. The Orchot Tazaddikim takes this even a step further when he writes: “Troubles are for the long term benefit of the individual. As it says: “Rejoice not against me, my enemy; for when I fall, I will get up; when I sit in darkness, Hashem is light to me.” Our Rabbis of blessed memory taught us, “If I had fallen, I would not have picked myself up. If I did not sit in darkness I could not have seen the light.”

As adults, we know that life is full of challenges and sometimes things painfully don’t go our way. Sooner or later though, our children will be in on the secret as well. What happens when the harness of childhood has been wrapped so tightly around them? Seems to me that the fall will hurt even more once the harness inevitably goes away and they enter the “real world”.

What emerges from this is that in order to develop grit in our children (a life skill that will help their long-term happiness), we simply can’t always intervene to fix our children’s problems. As painful as it is to sit back and watch, we need to let them sort through things on their own. This could mean not writing their papers or doing their homework for them (which unfortunately many parents seem to be doing), not calling the school every time there is a small complaint, not interfering too much with friendships even when our children’s feelings are hurt by a social interaction, etc. As a parent it’s very hard to step back, but don’t be upset if kids have a little difficulty. You can be there for them to help pick up the pieces and help learn from the experience. Or you can be their cheerleader, rooting them on to get back up and persevere.

Kids can handle more than you think. A little overcoming of obstacles in childhood and facing problems inoculates them for adulthood and an understanding of the world as a place where we are supposed to be working on ourselves and overcoming nisyonot (tests), and not just having fun and getting everything our way. As the famous saying in Mishlei goes “sheva yipol tzaddik v’kam” (A righteous person falls seven times…but gets up!) We need to teach our children not to take the first blow as the knock- out punch.

No one is saying not to protect your children from larger dangers or failures, or even the lion’s share of small failures as well. By all means do all that you can to help them, but sometimes this might mean letting them fail and helping them put back the pieces, in order to learn how to deal with and manage the adversity. Ultimately you are your children’s safety net- just make sure that net is not pulled so tight that it’s a harness, or worse yet a straight jacket.

About the Author
Beth Perkel is a freelance writer that has been published in a whole host of publications ranging from Newsweek magazine and Chicken Soup for the Soul to The Jewish Press and She is a mother, speaker, mediator, teacher, rebbetzin and writer in Chicago, IL. To sign up to receive emails of her blog posts, please click on her website link below.
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