The Art of Letting Our Children Fail and How to Apply This to Writing

Ours is not a society that embraces failure. We teach our children to reach for the stars, be number one. After all, the goal of a game, a contest of any kind, is to win, not to come in second. You don’t hear the national anthem for the team who wins the silver medal. No one chants at sporting events, “We’re Number Two!”(Unless you’re watching Whip It and you’re cheering for those lovable underdogs, The Hurl Scouts. Gotta love ’em.)

We all want to be the winners; by extension, we all want to see our kids succeed.

And that means not repeating our mistakes.

How can we keep that from happening? How do we ensure that their road will be less bumpy than ours was? How in the hell do we insulate them, protect them from the big, bad world?

We don’t.

We can’t do that if we want them to grow.

According to a Psychology Today article: Mistakes Improve Children’s Learning, one of the worst things a parent can do is cover up a child’s mistake or correct their homework for them so they get a better grade. Even worse is to praise their intelligence. This actually makes them “less likely to persist in the face of challenges.” Kids praised for their intelligence see any mistake as a sign of failure and will give up early on whereas kids praised for their efforts persevere when they make mistakes and will try different approaches to a problem and succeed at much higher rates. Interesting, yes?

Still, letting your children fail is no easy thing.

Rationally, I understand this concept, but when one of my children is sobbing because she feels stupid after she’s failed spectacularly at something and doesn’t think she can suffer the mortal embarrassment another moment, I forget that encouraging my child to try again, to find her own solution is good for her. Instead, I want to give her the answer. I want to help her avoid the mistakes I made. I have to fight the urge to rescue, to solve the problem for her, to tell her that she’s smart.

Similarly, many writers find it difficult to let their characters fail.

It feels like a betrayal. We are like their parents, are we not? We create them, we coerce their deepest, darkest secrets out of them – what they want most in the world – and then we deny them that very thing, putting obstacle after obstacle in their path, hurting them again and again until their lives are beyond unbearable. We have to. Otherwise, we’re not writing a good story. There are times that we may be tempted to rescue our characters, to make life a little easier, to solve the problem for them. As with our real children, we’d be doing them a grave disservice.

Recently, it came to our attention that all of our efforts at trying to “help” solve our child’s problems were only creating more stress and pressure on our child and not allowing her to find her own solutions. We would have to let go and allow our child the chance to succeed or fail on her own. This had us both very worried. I mean, how far should we let her fall? What if she totally gave up on herself and never recovered? What if we were labeled: The Worst. Parents. EVER?

Amazingly, that didn’t happen. When the stress of our constant “helping” was gone and our child was given the responsibility of solving her own problems, she did it. She came up with solutions that we may not have chosen, but they worked. She was able to experience successes – her own successes. And we were there to cheer her on.

In all good stories, the character must learn something from their experiences – must grow or change as a result of what they’ve been through. That can only happen if they face their own obstacles; if they live through the gut-wrenching experiences and solve their own problems. No one else can do it for them.

Nobel Prize winner Danish Physicist Niels Bohr once said, “An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.”

I like that.

I might reach that expert level in parenting. Maybe even in writing as well. I still have plenty of mistakes left to make in both fields, but maybe someday…