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Character Comes From Adversity, But How Do We Let Our Kids Fail?

Published on: December 30, 2013

art-of-education-grit-postIn a talk last week to a committed, involved crowd of Seattle-area parents, educators and counselors (and in his much-buzzed-about book now on The New York Times Best Seller list) author Paul Tough cautioned against overprotecting children. With well-researched anecdotes and data to support him, Tough sings the benefits of letting children fail.

Failure, Tough and other education experts are telling us, builds character and grit that lead to success in life.

I was talking to my committed, involved, engaged colleague, who is also a parent, about this. She, like I do, agreed that Tough's offer of letting children fail makes sound sense. As committed and involved parents, we often do for our children what they can do for themselves. We are so blinded by our care for them, we protect them from the slightest pain or inconvenience.

We get what Paul Tough is saying, but how much adversity are we supposed to allow?

How do we let our children fail?

While my answer to this question is still evolving, I have one ready tip to offer parents. Ask yourself these questions:

Is my child capable of doing/handling/responding/dealing with this situation?

Is she able to do/handle/respond/deal with it?

Is she willing?

The question of capability helps you determine if your child has the skills — social, cognitive or physical — to do something. Is she capable of packing her own lunch? Is she capable of speaking in front of a crowd? Is she capable of reading to complete this homework? How do you know her capacities? Ask yourself what past experiences and skills has she demonstrated that tell you she is capable.

If your child is capable, then it's time to ask if she is able. Ability indicates whether she can now execute in a specific situation using the skills she has. Sure, she can pack her lunch — she has the motor skills — but is she able to? Is she able to perform given her mood, temperament, situation? Is there a way you can train her to do it? The question of ability is often tied to the child's emotional readiness to engage a piece of work. To discern what might be going on for your child emotionally, ask if she is motivated, sees the point, is driven and desires doing what you hope she will do.

By separating the capacity versus the ability to do something, parents can begin to let their children fail. If a child is capable, perhaps all you need to do is train her briefly by having a quick conversation, a comment that motivates her. Then, let her go at it and fail if needed.

Her failure will build her ability. And the rest will follow, as Tough says.


Anoo Padte helps parents choose the right school, coaches on parenting for a fulfilling education and provides Math and Science enrichment. She is a certified teacher, coach, speaker and writer. She has been interviewed locally and nationally on school choice. Learn more at Art of Education.

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