Op-ed and Comment

Failure and success

I talk about the sandbox, but harder still is to watch your kid shut you out of her college application process and not go crazy.

If you let your kids fail, you might be doing them a favour
Shoba Narayan

November 19, 2013 Updated: November 19, 2013 19:36:00

It is a conundrum. Encountering obstacles and failures helps a child to develop grit and resilience, yet the hardest thing for a parent to do is to sit and watch as their child stumbles and falls.

Angela Lee Duckworth, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist, has said that grit and determination are surprisingly accurate predictors of achievement – much more so than IQ.

Grit is closely related to resilience. It is the ability to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and keep on going. Dr Duckworth calls it “intestinal fortitude”.

The problem for parents is that the best way to develop fortitude is to fail. So can you engineer failure in a fairly stable home environment?

My friend, Roopal, who graduated from Yale and Stanford School of Business, is a great believer in the power of failure as a way to develop grit.

She doesn’t mollycoddle or cosset her two young daughters. She doesn’t jump in to stop them from failing, whether it is tripping and falling in a sandpit or being told off by their basketball coach.

She has realised what most parents haven’t: the only way to learn from failure is to have it happen to you.

My parenting style is somewhat different. I am a preoccupied, distracted parent, much like my college professor father.

Neither of my parents were terribly involved in my life while growing up. They knew that I liked to write but didn’t necessarily read everything I wrote.

They knew I liked the arts but didn’t sign me up for lots of classes. They let me be. They were around but not heavily involved.

In the absence of struggle, is detachment a useful parenting technique? If you are unable to re-create a difficult environment that fosters grit, what do you do? The only way, in my mind, is to allow our kids to experience a small amount of failure.

We need to stop picking up after them, helping them with their homework, sending them to tuition classes – as is the norm in certain parts of India – and covering up for their mistakes.

Children need to own up to their mistakes and experience the hurt that is a part of growing up.

When your friends mock you, learning to deal with it is good practice for the grown-up world and its harsher elements.

A child who has never learnt to deal with hurt will be overwhelmed by the workplace and its attendant humiliations.

Similarly, a child whose parents help with science projects will never learn about submitting mediocre work, getting yelled at for it, and figuring out how to do it better.

In the absence of existing in that kind of tough world, allowing for controlled failure at home is the next best option.

Most experts agree that a significant component of grit is effort. Simply encouraging your child to keep at it and to make hard work a habit is a great start.

Dr Duckworth has pointed out that grit is inversely proportional to IQ, perhaps because children who are talented or have high IQs are used to things coming easy to them. They are not used to putting in the sheer dogged effort to reach their goals. Parental rewards through phrases such as: “You are so smart,” do not help either.

As for me, I call myself a detached parent because I’m lazy.

It is too much work to emulate Tiger moms who discipline, scream and goad their children into aiming for higher goals. Me, I just want to be left alone to do my thing while they do theirs.

If there isn’t blood flowing, I don’t intervene.

And therein lies the irony: I am the lazy parent who tells her child to work hard. My kids will thank me for it someday.

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India – a memoir


  1. I have never understood the so called “failure pundits” who loudly profess that failure is the way to learn, that to succeed big you must have failed big before. I don’t buy this at all. Sachin Tendulkar, Warren Buffett, Yo Yo Ma .. these guys didn’t really fail big before succeeding big.

    Hundreds of psychometric studies have shown that the route to success is to set small, achievable incremental goals and let children’s natural abilities and motivations develop and expand into the newly created space. Tiger mothers who scream and goad their kids to score 750 (from 650 where the kid currently is at) are just stupid. Screaming and goading is useless. The trick is to get to 660-680 and then the children’s natural abilities expand to get beyond there.

    Every 17-year-old kid wants to become a rock star or a taxi driver. And every single study shows that these careers have very limited chance of success AND that the rate of failure is permanent and crippling. (In fact kids these days know it too.) What is interesting is that when kids connect with slightly older kids (those in college, or just graduated), then that argument is much more persuasive. A 50 year old parent lecturing a 17 year old child on the mysteries of life … just doesn’t work. A 22 year old college graduate who sees his fellow students go out and find jobs and travel and do other exciting things AND participate in the world economy … no longer dreams of being a taxi driver.

    Mind you now I am not speaking against non-STEM careers. These days kids can study gardening or pottery or sculpture or whatever else and get on just fine. But to be a door-to-door salesperson or drummer in a band or bus driver is probably a very limited thing. So. Not. Cool.


  2. Wow. I think your kid is missing out if they’re leaving you out of the college process. Unlike me and many other Indian undergrad parents, you’ve actually experienced it and can add some value. (I just figure I’ll be able to drive the minivan around, when my time comes!)

    I disagree with “a child whose parents help with science projects will never learn”. It depends on the kind of help. Parents who don’t do all the work for the kid but instead question and drive the kid to do the work — sort of like Irene and Marie Curie — will end up with smart and well-motivated kids.


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