As parents and educators, we like to set children up to succeed. We treasure (and celebrate) our wins and downplay our defeats. It is tempting to always praise, always let your child win, always promote positivity… but is there value in letting them fail?


John Holt in his book from 1962, “How Children Fail,” continues to have a voice in this parenting/educating dilemma:

Children who undertake to do things… do not think in terms of success and failure but of effort and adventure. It is only when pleasing adults becomes important that the sharp line between success and failure appears.

What if our children’s very idea of failure – and feeling of defeat – stems from a definition we’ve supplied? What if we’ve handed them the script of “winning = good, losing = bad” when their instinct is to simply try?

Recently, a viral post on social media from self-made billionaire Sarah Blakely included an anecdote of a family tradition in her home:

“My dad used to ask my brother and me at the dinner table what we had failed at that week,” she told the audience at a recent Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship event in New York City. “I can remember coming home from school and saying, ‘Dad, I tried out for this and I was horrible!’ and he would high-five me and say, ‘Way to go!’ If I didn’t have something that I had failed at, he actually would be disappointed.”

This dinner table tradition allowed Blakely to see the value in failure. “My dad always encouraged me to fail, and because of this, he gave me the gift of retraining my thinking about failure,” she explained. “Failure for me became about not trying, instead of the outcome.”

At the very least, a mindfulness about how we frame and discuss what constitutes having done a “great job” would be a good practice in our homes. Wherever we land on the spectrum of parental praise, it’s important to empower young learners with an unflagging desire to give it their best shot! They may land in great success, and great failure, and have their Edison moment: “I’ve not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that do not work.”