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Fear of Failure vs. Freedom to Learn

by Mark Gregston

February 28th, 2020

Somewhere in North Wales, there is an acre-sized play mecca for children called, The Land. It’s not neat, not organized …and not really all that safe. Among other odd sundry items, the playground consists of old tires, discarded mattresses, a faded plastic boat, wooden pallets, and a frayed rope hanging from a tree over a river. Fires are started by boys in an old tin drum. Because, as everyone knows, boys love starting fires. And with the exception of a barely visible playground worker, it’s strictly “No adults allowed.”

It reminds me of my own childhood. This was an era where adults were “there” if you needed them, but they didn’t hover over or hurry their children into premature adulthood. It was a time when kids were free to face what appeared to them to be “dangerous risks,” allowing them to conquer these obstacles alone. This type of unstructured, self-discovery play was an essential rite of passage that built both self-confidence and courage in children.

Sure, today in America, we understandably want to protect our children from danger. But sometimes I wonder if we’ve gone too far to protect our kids from even the hint of risk. Failure to supervise has become, in fact, synonymous with failure to parent.

Yet many experts now believe that this over attention to “safety” has resulted not only in the ubiquitous government-regulated, sterile pre-fab playgrounds—but also in parents becoming hyper “regulatory” in other arenas of a child’s life. As a result, studies show that today’s children are less creative, less able to think for themselves, less able to connect seemingly unrelated ideas, and … less courageous. In other words, more risk averse.

The Thrill is Gone

And that’s lamentable, because growing up should be a thrilling experience—filled with lots of risk taking! The truth is, parents cause their children harm if they don’t create a family atmosphere that allows for mistakes. As Mark Twain said, “There are no mistakes in life; there are only lessons to be learned.” Yet under the banner of “good parenting,” many parents are just simply overprotective.  In the process, they are isolating their kids, denying them the opportunity to fail, suppressing their teens’ desire to make decisions, beating down their spirit if they make a mistake, and withholding opportunities for learning. When we allow our children to take risks—by allowing them to explore the world on their own against the backdrop of the Biblical values we instill in them early on——it makes them far less risk averse. In other words, far less fearful. As actor John Wayne once said, “Courage is being scared to death and saddling up anyway.”

I’m not saying that you throw your children into the deep end of the pool (metaphorically speaking) and, yell, “Swim!” to teach them to keep their heads above water. I am saying you start in the shallow end and gradually let them go farther out as they show responsibility, maturity, and wisdom. Will they go under at times? Yes. Will they go too far at times? Yes. That’s where you come in. Just like the designated “playground worker” at The Land, you’re always nearby, watching for impending accidents, but otherwise letting the children figure out lessons about life on their own.

It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint

Growing into adulthood should be a gradual process— not a sprint to the finish line. Many parents today are concerned that their children are growing up too fast. But I wouldn’t exactly call it “growing up.” It’s more like they’ve become adept at mimicking the look and habits of adulthood. In times past, children gradually took on adult responsibilities … year by year. As Roger Hart, a university professor whose groundbreaking research into how children play resulted in a BBC documentary, said, “Their pride was wrapped up in competence and independence, which grew as they tried and mastered activities they hadn’t known how to do the previous year. But these days, many children skip these milestones. They spend a lot of time in the company of adults, so they can talk and think like them, but they never build up the confidence to be truly independent and self-reliant.”

 So what does gradually transferring responsibility to your child look like … practically?  Here are a few helpful guidelines. When your tween beings turning into a teen, start flavoring your conversations with comments and questions that transfer you making decisions and placing responsibility on them. You can say things like:

  •  “Where do you want to go to eat tonight?”
  •  What do you think you ought to do?”
  •  “I’ll stand with you, but I won’t bail you out of this one.”

I’m talking about helping a child make decisions at an early age where they learn to choose between a Big Mac and a tofu burger … all the way up to choosing the college they’ll attend and the person they’ll marry. In between those two points are plenty of opportunities to exercise that decision-making muscle. So, let them make as many decisions as possible.

The Shame Game

And they will make mistakes. Sometimes small scrapes … sometimes big boo-boos.  Some of them will even embarrass you as a parent; however, when your kids do make mistakes, here’s what you don’t want to do: play the “shame game.” When you shame them for their mistakes, it can cause them to shut down, make them explosive in their response (shame upon shame), or worse, make them shut you out. At all costs, avoid using derisive comments like:

  • “I told you so.”
  • “You should have listened.”
  • I hope you learned your lesson!”

Your kids already know they made a mistake. Think of it this way. You wouldn’t like it if every time you screwed up (and we certainly know it when we do), God wagged his finger at you, and said, “What is wrong with you … why can’t you ever learn?!” The Bible tells us that “It’s the goodness of God that leads us to repentance” … not the harshness.

The key to having your children actually learn from their mistakes is to allow the consequences of their poor choices to have a full impact. Just keep your cool. You’ll appear Yoda-like and your child will be like Luke Skywalker … ultimately respecting you for allowing him to learn a lesson from the mistake. “As Proverbs 17:28 says, “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise ….” Trust me, this will strengthen your relationship.  The reward will be your child coming back at you with comments like:

  • “You were right, Dad.”
  • “I should have listened, Mom.”
  • “I’ll never do that again.”

Risk Has Its Rewards

These are all comments that reveal a child is learning. She’s practicing what she’s been taught because she was given the freedom to try. And it’s in those attempts, that her character—the essence of who she will become—is formed.  If you don’t allow her to fail, you’ll share the same lament as one parent I read about who said, “ Above all else, we taught our daughter to fear failure. And that fear is what destroyed her love of learning.”

I find that sad, because isn’t learning what life is all about? As Ellen Sandseter, a professor of early-childhood education at Queen Maud University College in Norway noted, “Children have a sensory need to taste danger and excitement; this doesn’t mean that what they do has to actually be dangerous, only that they feel they are taking a great risk. That scares them, but then they learn to overcome the fear.”

So, give your children the gift of allowing them to take risks.  In so doing, you’ll greatly increase their chances of becoming confident, imaginative, emphatic and resilient teens that are ready to take on the world head on. And believe me, the world is waiting for people like that!


Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential counseling center for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas. He has been married to his wife, Jan, for 40+ years, has two kids, and four grandkids. He lives in Longview, Texas, with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, two llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy. His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with more than 3,000 teens has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents.

You can find out more about Heartlight at www.HeartlightMinistries.org. You can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.

For more information and helpful resources for moms and dads, check out our Parenting Today’s Teens website at www.ParentingTodaysTeens.org. It’s filled with ideas and tools to help you become a more effective parent. There you will also find a station near you where you can listen to the Parenting Today’s Teens radio broadcast, or download the podcast of the most recent programs.