Parent Acts: Why is it so hard to let our kids fail?

Story highlights

  • In the "Parent Acts" video series, CNN's Kelly Wallace asks parents to role-play
  • Letting kids stumble gives them a chance to learn, says parenting expert

Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter @kellywallacetv.

(CNN)There is no question that one of the most difficult things about being a parent is letting our children stumble, fail, make mistakes.

I wrote a story last January asking if it's OK to let our kids fail. I shared how difficult it was to let my then-7-year-old daughter bring a project to school she felt like she had put her heart into, but that I worried wouldn't measure up to what the other children might do.
    After listening to the experts and reading the research about how harmful our inability to let our kids stumble can be once they've grow into young adults, I admit I'm much better at pulling back. Still, l find myself struggling at times.
    For instance, the night before a math test, I wonder if I should try to find a way to do some practice math with my daughters. I know it's wrong and I shouldn't -- and I ultimately don't -- but that still doesn't mean I don't feel somewhat anxious about it.
    In the fifth installment of our new CNN Digital Video series "Parent Acts," we asked people to act out how they handle those moments when they have a hard time letting their kids make mistakes. We then had a parenting expert listen to their role-play to weigh in with advice.
    Deedee Abbott, a mother of two in Atlanta, says she finds it difficult to strike the right balance between encouraging her children to give their best when they're taking risks and making them feel she expects perfection.
    She shared the story of how her 9-year-old son starred in a play. The first two times she saw the play, he didn't pay attention on stage.
    "When I gave him feedback, his immediate thing was, 'I can't. I can't pay attention,' " said Abbott. "And I said, 'Well, that's what you've been practicing to do. ... You're supposed to try.' And then he started crying. 'What if I try my hardest and you can't tell I'm trying?' "
    After the third performance, he did a better job, so Abbott wonders if she should have stepped in sooner than she did, or if she should have never said anything?
    Erik Fisher, a psychologist working in the Atlanta area and co-author of "The Art of Empowered Parenting: The Manual You Wish Your Kids Came With," said it's good for parents to not always step in. If we do, our children think they have to learn everything from us.
    After hearing Abbott's story, he told her it was great that she let her son trip and fall and only then gave him some feedback.
    "You gave him some time to walk away and think about it," said Fisher. "He solved the problem and came back and saw better results so understand that your kid might be upset in the moment," he told Abbott. "You didn't break him. You have to help him become more self-reflective and that's what you want to talk about with him."
    What failure or mistakes do is they help us learn our way, said Fisher. After all, nobody in life succeeds 100% of the time. "Teaching our kids ... to see the opportunity in what felt like tragedy, that's when we become better participants in life rather than people who would rather not play the game at all than play the game and lose."

    The struggle to be perfect

    Mark Leibert's son, 11, plays basketball and baseball. The Atlanta father of one admits he sometimes gets caught up in whether his son gave his best performance during a game.
    "There are some moments where I just think, 'Why isn't he performing better?' ... and then I think, 'Well, what's going on with me in that situation?' "
    He said he has learned from his mistakes, such as refraining from telling his son he should have gotten a rebound or talking about another specific moment in the game.
    "I think in his own way, he's keeping tabs during a game of his own performance and so I probably am just reinforcing perhaps his own negative approach to it, so I'm trying to ease up on what he already does," said Leibert.
    By giving children space, letting them assess their own performance and figure out what they might need or want to do better next time, they develop the necessary skills to take on challenges later in life, Fisher said. When children are particularly hard on themselves and may have perfectionist tendencies, parents can step in to offer them perspective and help them strike the right balance.
    After hearing Leibert's story, Fisher told him, "So you want to talk to (your son) and say, 'What can you do to do your best, love what you do and feel OK with learning (and) knowing that you don't have to be perfect?' ... Let's look out 20 years. How that's going to be in 20 years when you are still expecting yourself to be perfect. What might that feel like if you make a mistake?' "

    'Focus on process over end product'

    When I first explored this topic last year, I interviewed Jessica Lahey, whose book, "The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed," was published last summer. It has since become a New York Times best-seller and will be published in paperback in August.
    Her biggest piece of advice for parents back then was to try to stay away from the focus on end results, particularly grades and test scores. Instead, praise the effort that went into the task.
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    I circled back with Lahey, who is also a writer for the Atlantic, The New York Times and Vermont Public Radio, to ask if that key advice had changed after a year of traveling the country and talking to parents, educators, administrators and students about the importance of failure.
    Her advice still stands, she said.
    "The question I get most often is from parents who are in the same boat I was in a few years ago," she said via email. "I knew I was overparenting and rescuing my kids from discomfort and frustration, but I did not know how to START turning that boat around."
    The first thing any parent needs to head in the right direction of letting kids fail is to keep a focus on learning above all else, she said. "Focus on process over end product, long-term goals of competence and independence over the short-term rewards of stepping in to 'help' and make our kids' lives easier," she said.
    "Any time you find yourself jumping in to rescue or take over a task for your kids, stop and ask yourself, 'Can my kid learn anything from this?' and if the answer is yes, whether that lesson is in a concrete skill or simply a moment to realize that they are more capable than they thought, restrain yourself. Hold your tongue. Lace your fingers together behind your back, and give your kids the opportunity to find out what they are able to do on their own."
    I'll be reading that message over and over again for a good long time.
    Do you have a hard time letting your children fail? Share your thoughts with Kelly Wallace on Twitter @kellywallacetv.