Editor’s Note: This piece was written by Jessi Christiansen, the Head of The Independent Day School, located in Middlefield, CT.


One of the most painful parts of parenting is watching your child fail. When our kids approach a potential new friend on the playground and are rebuffed or try out for a team and get cut, our hearts break along with theirs. Our instinct is to protect them – to shield them from the sad feelings, to prevent a future failure in anyway we can.

But what if supporting those failures, rather than the more obvious successes, determined your child’s ability to be a success in the future?

Intriguing research suggests exactly that. In his book, How Children Succeed, Paul Tough tried to discover why some children succeed while others fail. “The story we usually tell about childhood and success is the one about intelligence and cognitive skills: success comes to those who score highest on tests, from preschool admissions to SATs.” But he, alongside Carol Dweck, author of Mindset, argues that the qualities that matter more have to do with actual character skills like perseverance, curiosity, optimism, and grit. People who fail and learn to recover adapt more easily to setbacks and, because of their ability to bounce back, enjoy more successful lives overall.

That means that in our urge to protect our children from every kind of adversity, we may actually be harming them. By not letting them experience failure, we produce adults who can’t cope with setback. Overcoming adversity is what produces character. And, according to Paul Tough, it is character, even more developed abilities, practiced skills or even IQ, that leads to real and lasting success.

At the school I lead, we emphasize the act of risk taking and the feeling of vulnerability that accompanies it, and take time to bring “fearless learning” to the forefront of our academic and social/emotional curriculum. We live in a culture where making oneself vulnerable – exposing fears, taking emotional risks – is often considered a form of weakness, and is most often something that we shy away from. However, when we try to wrap our arms around the phrase “fearless learning”, we must recognize that it is the act of leaning into our vulnerability that often brings the greatest purpose and meaning to our lives. Once we have accepted how it feels to lean into this discomfort, we challenge people to take the next risky steps: embrace the potential of failure and focus on what happens after. In fact, it’s not always about failing; it’s more often about recovering.

So our job as parents is to help kids keep working at a puzzle, even when it’s frustrating. It is our job to tell them stories about when we failed first and later succeeded. And it is our job to help them get back on the horse that has just thrown them and try again.

Ideally parents – like a school — do this by surrounding children with rigor and love, with high expectations and room to learn from reflection. We support our children like the net under the trapeze artist. We look up and are amazed at the acrobatic abilities. We catch the fallen artists when they miss the bar. And we send them right back up, watch as they adjust their routines, and try the moves again.

For more about The Independent Day School, visit their website or check them out on Facebook & Twitter. If you’re interested in visiting the school, they are holding an open house on January 12th from 1-3 PM.

This is a sponsored post.

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