Kerry Harp


No parent wants his child to fail, but honestly, we should.  Our children will not grow up to be competent adults without experiencing failure- feeling it, learning from it, and learning about themselves in the process.  Sister Maureen recommended Jessica Lahey’s book, The Gift of Failure, to our Ancillae community at Back to School Night this year, and I, like many others, read it at first chance.  Below are my takeaways as a parent of three young children.  May we all let them fail so our children can find happiness and autonomy!


By doing for my child, I am actually taking away.


For all the moments that we save the day with forgotten homework, or fix the problem with our immediate advice, or do it ourselves to save time, our kids are losing out on experiences they need to grow and learn.  As a working parent, daily life is a juggling game, and I pretty much operate one day at a time in survival mode.  Who needs what?  When?  Where to do we need to be?  Check. Check. Check.  Time is measured by items accomplished on the to-do list, and we are constantly looking ahead at what’s next.  It’s a rat race.  By default, it becomes much easier for me to zip the coat to get us out the door on time.  Or to clean up after dinner by myself because the kids won’t do it well enough, and I’ll have to do it after them anyway.  Or to put the forgotten book in the school bag to avoid a meltdown.  But ultimately, all of those things are serving me- my patience, my time, my energy, my sanity.  It keeps the house running smoothly, which often we think is the end goal.  We look like we have our act together.  Everything looks neat and tidy.  I feel like I’ve got this parenting thing under control.  Win!  But am I really?  Will I still be cutting their waffles into middle school?  Will I feel like I am the one with a test to study for years to come?  Will I be trying to remember which day is practice and which day is pizza long into high school, so everyone is prepared?  I hope not…

Bottom line:  We have to stop saving our kids from difficult tasks and unpleasant experiences and start teaching them to be in charge of their own lives.  Each day that we let go a little and give them the control and autonomy they crave, we are doing our job.  The struggle, the disappointment, even the pain, are all moments our children need to move through to come out on the other side with the skills, knowledge, and resilience to function. 


I’m in. 


Truly, I would like to stop carrying with weight of the world on my shoulders.  But how do you back off?  Jessica Lahey offers great insight on how to make the transition.  Give responsibility and roles in your family life.  Chores, or family contributions, are very valuable in allowing kids the freedom to try, fail, and try again.  They also provide a sense of accomplishment when completed that kids need to feel.  Give your child the space and opportunity to find purpose.

Harder said than done when it comes to messing up in school.  But the failures are far smaller and more easily overcome in elementary and middle school than in high school and college comparatively.  The less we push our kids toward educational success, the more they will learn.  Let it be about the process, the challenge, the learning- not the grades.  Praise effort and understand growth mindset.  Parents and teachers can be powerful allies in helping children acknowledge and learn from mistakes and build successful habits for the classroom and beyond.

Our children’s social and emotional life is another area to consider.  Our parental urge to protect is strong.  But when we swoop in at the first sign of trouble, we rob our kids of the ability to get along or not get along with others.  Intrapersonal skills are learned at recess, on the playground, in the backyard- adult free places of uninterrupted play.  Lahey explains, “Children develop empathy by seeing and hearing other people’s reactions and emotions, and when we don’t allow our children to experience the full brunt of those uncomfortable moments, we deny them a glimpse into the consequences and impact of their actions on others.”


Letting go.


According to my reading, here is a really good rundown of what controlling parents do versus what autonomy-supportive parents do. 

Controlling parents:

give a lot of unsolicited advice and direction
take over
offer extrinsic motivators in exchange for behaviors
provide solutions/correct answer before children have a chance to really struggle with problem
don’t let kids make their own decisions

Autonomy-supportive parents:

guide children toward solutions
allow for mistakes and help kids understand consequences of mistakes
value mistakes as much as successes
acknowledge children’s feelings of frustration and disappointment
give feedback

If that’s not eye-opening…

Parents who seek autonomy for their children set clear expectations, are physically and emotionally available, and offer guidance,  which actually sounds like a bit of a relief!  I don’t have to solve everyone’s problems.  I don’t have to manage everyone’s schedules.  I don’t have to do it all for them.  Awesome.  And you tell me that it’s actually good for them, and I am a better parent for letting those things go! 

So, really the problem is me being okay with the aftermath.  Am I okay with the dishes haphazardly loaded in the dishwasher by my child?  Am I okay with the poor effort and hence poor grade that my child earned on a rushed assignment?  Am I okay with the inside out pants my child is walking around in that he picked out and put on without being told?  Am I okay with the friend heartache that my daughter feels when I simply listened and didn’t interfere?  Am I okay with my child missing out because he couldn’t find the permission slip in time?  

I have to be if I understand my role as a parent.


Think long-term.


I imagine my child in college and beyond.  Can she do her laundry?  Can he advocate for himself with a professor?  Can she recover from a breakup?  Can he apply for a job even though it’s a long shot?

So, I will start to release my control, my fears, my need, and begin to live by the mantra:  Are my actions promoting autonomy or dependence?  In the day-to-day scramble, I will try to take lots of deep breaths, count to 10, hold my tongue, and live in the messiness so that I keep my focus on my real task as a parent- to teach my children to become adults. 

That destination can only be reached by an imperfect path.  I promise though to travel with my children and in all things, show them they are not alone, they matter, and that I will support them as they find their place in the world.

And if you see my crew or house looking a little more real than before, you’ll know we are accepting the gift of failure.

Want to learn more?  Read the book as Lahey devotes chapters to friends, sports, middle school, high school and beyond, homework, and grades.  Let’s all fail forward together.


About the Author

Kerry Harp
Director of Admissions & Communications

Mom of 3
19 years serving Ancillae-Assumpta Academy

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