Failing to let them fail

When I was living and teaching in California, in the early 2000’s, I was lucky enough to attend some wonderful teaching conferences and seminars. A particularly inspirational speaker (whose name I wish I’d written down, or committed to memory) said something that made a huge impression on me:

“Never deny a student their right to fail.”

At the time this statement impacted me more from a teacher-frustration and burn-out point of view. It helped me to not lose sleep (as I had been) over students who were simply exercising their right to fail. It made me realise that no matter what potential I could see in a student, there was nothing I could do to make them achieve that potential unless they chose to. It gave me the confidence to award a guilt free 0% for work not turned in; or late work. It helped me to separate my own needs, as a teacher, from my students’ needs to learn … and sometimes learn through failing. It wasn’t long before I began to understand the importance of that statement with regards to my students’growth, learning and development.

Children and teenagers know when they’re being patronised and they don’t like it

This whole “everyone gets a prize” mentality is not helpful. How on earth are children supposed to grow into resilient, self-aware adults, who have control of their emotions and can set goals, take action and achieve those goals, if they are rewarded for simply being in the class/on the team? How will the children who put in the extra effort to achieve those top marks, sporting wins, etc, feel edified and motivated to continue if their achievements are not highlighted? What will children aspire to if actual achievement is not rewarded appropriately? In my opinion, schools should either stop prize givings altogether, or stick to acknowledging top achievers only. Children and teenagers know when they’re being patronised and they don’t like it. They understand and respect fairness; much more than many parents seem to.

“It’s not fair!”

Last year I had an unpleasant experience with a 13 year old who had a full blown screaming tantrum when she received a B on a project. Her sense of entitlement would not allow her to accept that fact that she had not completed an entire section of the project. Even when admitting her oversight/choice (it was never quite clear whether or not she had intentionally left that section out), she was still unable to get beyond feeling, “It’s not fair!” Her entire argument was based on, “Everyone else in my group got an A!” At 13 years of age, she was not able to accept responsibility for her incomplete work and the consequences thereof. In my opinion, she was a victim of a system that had failed her … by never failing her.

Let them fail

Parents, teachers – I implore you: let them fail. Let them learn and accept consequences. Be there to give them all the help, understanding, resources and encouragement they need to give it another go and to succeed … but let them fail. That’s the only way they’ll get to experience the extreme satisfaction of  trying again (and again and again and again, if necessary) –  and succeeding! That is personal satisfaction that no certificate, medal nor trophy can match.

5 thoughts on “Failing to let them fail”

    1. Exactly, Adrian. We’re creating a culture of mediocrity and no accountability; at exactly the time that we should be working towards the opposite!


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