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In order to be successful, teenagers need to be able to cope with failures of all types. This blog post explains why, and how teachers and parents can help.

Despite that it is one of the most important life experiences, “failure” has become a “dirty word” for families and teachers.

As teachers, we intervene at just about every turn, check off our list of accommodations, document phone calls and emails, and research innovative ways to prove that we’ve done everything we can to prevent our students from failing. Failure, of course, is much more than not passing a course. Even so, adults are often reluctant to allow their teenagers to feel any kind of failure at all.

As a mom and teacher of a middle school student, Jessica Lahey explains why failure is a good thing for teens. 


1. Failure increases intrinsic motivation and leads to greater academic success

Rewards systems have long been a part of education, both in and out of the classroom, and it has a detrimental effect on a student’s internal motivation to learn and succeed. One of my students in my Reading class openly discusses how he receives money for good grades or high scores. When we were celebrating a recent personal achievement, he said he was going to take the report home because he could “probably get some money out of it.”

There are a couple of issues at play here. First, rewards don’t work, because humans perceive them as attempts to control behavior, which undermines intrinsic motivation.

Second, human beings are more likely to stick with tasks that arise out of their own free will and personal choice. Given the choice between sticking with a “I have to” task or doing something else, most people would choose anything that is the product of their autonomy and self-determination. (Lahey 26)

Instead, Lahey recommends that parents and teachers “back off,” because teenagers actually do crave autonomy and independence. Instead of using rewards, focus on goal-setting: “be supportive of their goals. Some goals are going to seem trivial, but if they are important for your child to verbalize, they are important enough for your respect and support.”

2. Failure teaches students to become more organized and responsible

As tempting as it is to bring a forgotten lunch or assignment, Lahey specifically warns against this. Recognizing this as a sensitive subject and source of debate, she reminds the reader that “the goal here is not perfection, but the acquisition of basic skills and strategies” that will help teenagers find their own ways of staying organized. Although parents have good intentions when showing up to school midday to drop off work, they are inadvertently preventing their teenager from becoming successful.

It’s not coincidental that the students whose parents bail them out, and don’t allow them to deal with the consequences of these failures, develop these [executive function] skills more slowly…

Try, fail, suffer a little, remedy, try again. Over and over until they learn. A few missed lunches or a zero on the homework assignment she left on the kitchen counter will reinforce those skills better than your lectures or nagging ever will.

Every intervention or rescue is a lesson lost. (139)

Students who have been given hundreds of opportunities to learn from their mistakes and adjust to correct them will gradually take responsibility for his or her own assignments, projects, materials, lunches, sports bags or consequences of a forgotten flash drive. This student will also be far more prepared for high school than a one who shows up the first day of freshman year completely blindsided by the level of expectations.

3. Failure helps teenagers become socially adept

Students need time and space to work out their frustrations with their peers. While bullying should always be addressed, many parents (and teachers, too) jump to their students’ aid before the student has a chance to process on their own. Instead, the adults can act as supportive listeners and trust your teenager to make the call about what to do next. Students who learn to vocalize their emotions to their peers and press for a solution will be much more prepared to do this in the workplace or even a marriage.

If we allow them to mess up, anger other kids, fight, and make up, they will learn how to be a good friend, how to stand up for themselves, and how to say no to behaviors that make them uncomfortable. (104)

Lahey also encourages parents to allow their teenagers to bring friends over without judgement, and to “model positive and mutually beneficial friends” for their teenagers. If a specific concern of safety arises, she provides an array of options and strategies to pursue that won’t break the trust between parents and their teens.

4. Failure helps teenagers cope with the inevitable frustrations of life

These days, parents are more involved in their adult children’s lives than ever before. Colleges are seeing a rise of involved parents— often in the form of parents who email professors, demanding to know why a student received a particular grade or who intervene between roommates. However, these so-called “helicopter parents” don’t suddenly transform overnight; rather, it is the result of 18 years of having closely guarded their child.

By starting early, teenagers will be able to practice the necessary skills needed for finding a job, negotiating their way through the workplace, delving into relationships and even for becoming parents. The way for teenagers to achieve lifetime success is for parents and teachers to support, but not enable, teenagers through their transition to adulthood.

Let him have the freedom to create the person he wants to be and understand the paths and influences he does not want to follow. If he fails, and he will, that will be evidence of a dead-end experience and he will learn not to go down that road again.

If, however, you pave the way out of that dead end, he learns nothing new.

You have lived your life and learned the lessons it has granted you. Now it’s his turn. (177)


Want to find out more? There are three sections of the book in all, previewed below: 

Failure: A Most Valuable Parenting Tool – The book begins with a clear, yet engaging, history of American parenting. Even though I’m a teacher, this section provided a helpful context with why students today behave differently than when I was a student.

Learning From Failure: Teaching Kids to Turn Mistakes into Success – For me, this section was the highlight of the book–and not just because it includes the chapter on Middle School. I was surprised and impressed with the usefulness of the information and recommended strategies; these were tips that I could implement immediately in my classroom. The information presented about teenagers brains, such as working memory and executive function, was another “aha!” moment for me. Suddenly my students’ seemingly random, frustrating behaviors made more sense because I understood the science behind it.

Succeeding at School: Learning From Failure is a Team Effort – This part of the book gently focuses the attention to the issues that really matter: parent-teacher partnership, not competition; learning, not grades; intrinsic motivation, not rewards; student autonomy, not parental achievements.

Highly Recommended:

This is an excellent book for teachers, parents, a book club or professional development book study.
I know that my personal copy will be highlighted, annotated, bookmarked, loaned out to others and revisited many times!

If you’ve read The Gift of Failure, what parts resonated with you?
How can parents and teachers work together to help students embrace mistakes and failures?

Share your comments below!

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