Failure IS an option

I was working for a university a few years ago and received a call from a concerned parent who was upset that his son wasn’t doing well in classes.  He knew every grade his son was earning on assignments and tests, and he had read every email his son had received from friends and professors alike.  (As the father explained to me, he had refused to pay for college if his son didn’t give him all his passwords.)  He was beyond frustrated that his son wouldn’t stop watching YouTube videos long enough to do his schoolwork or go to sleep before 4:00 a.m.  He felt he had tried everything to motivate his son, to no avail.  He obviously loved his son deeply and was hurting to the point that he couldn’t see another way.

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This dad was trying to control every aspect of his son’s life, because he thought that would result in college success.  After much conversation, I explained to him as gently as possible that I had never in my career seen that kind of control and over-involvement work.  Never.  All that intercession was likely delaying the inevitable failure his son needed to experience to cultivate his own motivation.

I’ve learned that we can’t put more energy into someone’s success than they are willing to put in themselves.  Even parents.  Especially parents of college students.  That doesn’t mean we don’t have moments in our kids’ lives when we need to be a little more involved.  (Transition periods are a great example of that.)  But that over-involvement, where we think we can will them to success…that cannot be sustained over time.  It may prevent short-term failure, but it will surely impede long-term growth.

Think back to the times in your life when you’ve had the greatest failures or difficulties.  What happened after?  I’m willing to bet, based on my own history, that you experienced some of life’s greatest moments after that.  You grew, you learned, and you became better than you were before.  I know failure has been my best teacher!

Given that failure can be tremendously beneficial to us, it’s disturbing to note a certain trend in higher education.  Some of our students do not know how to handle failure.  For some, the thought of failing a class in college is beyond comprehension to the point that I’ve seen students completely freeze.  Obviously, it’s not ideal for a student to fail a course, but it does happen…and it will be okay.  I think this inability to manage failure may be attributed, in part, to a few things.

Social media – We tend to post the shiny, happy parts of our lives.  We don’t see the ugly stuff that everyone must deal with.  Is that making us terrified of not being perfect in comparison?  Terrified of being alone in our failure?

Parents who pressure their children to such an extent that they are sending a message that failure is a fate worse than death – This may be rooted in love, but I suspect it is deeper than that.  Are we basing our self-worth and identities on our kids’ successes?  That is intense pressure…on ourselves AND on our kids.

Parents who “fix” everything for their children, because they don’t want them to experience any unhappiness – I totally get this.  My heart wants to make my daughter’s life happy, easy, carefree, fun, and any other perfect and wonderful thing you can think of.  That’s not in her best interest, though.  I won’t be around forever, and she needs to know how to handle what life brings her way.

Long before our kids graduate high school, we need to let them fail.  We need to let them experience disappointment, and then use these things as teachable moments to talk about how to respond to adversity and the importance of resilience and grit. The earlier we start these lessons, the better, because it’s not easy for us OR our kids if we wait until they start college.

About author


Lori Smith and Scott Smith are higher education professionals with a combined 30 years experience working with college students. We also happen to be married to one another and are raising our own potential future college student.

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