Can I Love My Children Enough to Let Them Fail?

Photo by Taylor Nicole via Unsplash.

My 12-year-old son walks the delicate line between two worlds. He is all limbs and big smiles, growing into a frame that will easily exceed mine someday very soon. We recently bought the same style of shoes, the main difference being that his are a half-size bigger than mine. He is a golden retriever in personality and at his happiest when he is making other people smile.

The line he walks is the one between childhood and adulthood. His growing body is beginning to shout “young man!” while he plays in his room with Matchbox cars and reads Minecraft books.

I sometimes play monster with the kids, wrestle them all to the ground, but when I inadvertently grab his foot in the middle of that mass of arms and legs, I am shocked. Whose foot could this possibly be? How could I have a child who belongs to this appendage?

As a child, he plans on doing and becoming things that are nearly impossible. As a child, he sees no reason these things might not come to pass, as if the only thing he has to do is wish them in order to make them so. He announces these things in casual conversation, things like, “When I play in the NBA,” or, “You know, when I’m an astronaut…”

Biting my lip in these moments is perhaps one of the hardest things I’ve had to do as a parent because I want to remind him of the astronomical odds, the one-in-a-million. I want to warn him about the fragile nature of hope, the heaviness of failure.

But, no. Truth be told, I don’t want to just warn him. I want to forbid him. I want to tell him to stop being so childish, those things will never work out. I want to ask him, What else do you want to do? Surely there is something more reasonable, more practical, more attainable.

But why? a voice asks me. Why do you feel so compelled?

I’m protecting him, I reason. I don’t want him to be disappointed.

But why? the voice insists again, and this time I have to pause and think.

Because those poignant moments of failure are too hard.

When they happened to me, those palpable failures, they shook the very foundation of who I thought I was. They threw me off kilter, and for some time afterwards I felt like I was floating through space, no way to tell the difference between up and down.

Don’t set your sights too high, I want to tell him. That way, you won’t be disappointed.

* * * * *

But is that really the kind of existence I’d want any of my children to experience, a life without trying? Without wanting? Without desiring?

I think of where I am now, as a writer. I may never write a best-seller. I may never be famous for my creative ability (as I discussed in the Letter to My Friends Who Are Not Famous). What if my dad, when I was 12, honed in on my love of stories and pulled me aside.

“Listen,” he might have said, “This whole writing thing? You need to just walk away from it. Find a nice hobby you can’t fail at. Find a dependable job you’ll never lose. Writing? The odds are too small, son. You’ll be terribly disappointed someday.”

* * * * *

Can I love my children enough to let them fail? Or, perhaps another way of asking the same question, Can I love my children enough to give them the space they need to succeed?

It’s hard to think of each of my children reaching a stage where the world tells them they’re not good enough. Maybe the best thing I can do isn’t to short-circuit that failure, but to help them realize where their true value lies: in who they are, and not in what they do.

4 Replies to “Can I Love My Children Enough to Let Them Fail?”

  1. Another way to put it – can I allow my children to experience the vulnerability required to do brave and courageous things (like live out of their gifts)? Your courage and vulnerability, to do your own brave, is such a gift to your kids, Shawn, and a gift to the rest of us following along with you.

    1. Totally agree, Kelly.

      Shawn, I have similar emotions when I look at my sweet Jack who suddenly is too big for my lap! But your pressing in to ask the why is so powerful. I just want him to know that he was so perfect and loved that he began a revolution in my heart turning me into a mother- and his value is inestimable. It pains me to think of him doubting that. The irony is obvious of the parallel to God and His love for us- and how frequently I underestimate that.

      another great post. thank you.

  2. Well said. This made me think of something. I got my PhD in quantitative psychology. We’re the guys who develop tests for ACT and SAT. (Don’t hate me!) They teach that if a person answers all the questions right on a test, the test was too easy for that person. If they answer all the questions wrong, it was too hard. The ideal balance is to have a test where they only get half right. Then you know you’ve designed a test targeted to their ability. (Of course, it’s slightly more complicated than that, but let’s pretend it’s that easy :)).

    I think the same goes for life. If we’re *always* succeeding, maybe we’re not living up to our potential. If we’re always failing, maybe we’re aiming for something that’s beyond our knowledge or abilities.

    I was one of those kids who coasted through high school and college, *always* succeeding. Then I got to graduate school. Suddenly, I was surrounded by people who matched me in ability. And the sad thing was that I hadn’t learned to cope with failure yet. And, I tell you what, it *hurt* to have so many job applications ignored and to have failed interview after failed interview.

    Yet, I’m being stretched in ways that high school and undergraduate work wouldn’t. It hurts, but I’m growing. And in the end, I’m hoping the pain will be worth it.

  3. This is a recent lesson I am learning with my 18 year old. I’ve always been very quick to step in with either a net or a broom… or both. The net wore through and the broom is lost, and guess what? She’s not failing! She loves me and appreciates the help that I’ve given but now she appreciates the independence and is proud that she is really doing it on her own. I hope that my lesson stays with me as my other gals grow. Not to say that a hand up is always a bad thing. But I’m excited to still be learning new things as a parent even as my oldest children grow into adults.

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