Let Her Learn to Fail So She Can Learn to Succeed

When my youngest daughter, Annabelle, balked at taking a test to see if she qualified for the gifted/talented program at her new school, I let it slide. “What if I don’t pass?” she fretted. “That would be horrible. I don’t want to take it.”

I’m no Tiger Mom. Whether or not she was “gifted” according to school standards didn’t matter much to me, and honestly, it mattered less to her, since qualifying meant more work and time in a class away from friends. I didn’t push. I didn’t want her to feel badly if she didn’t make the cut. But then I thought, if she did test as “gifted,” she needed the chance to be challenged at school. She had to take the test.

Apparently, my daughter isn’t the only girl to avoid something that might lead to (perceived) failure.

In a recent University of Illinois study, researchers found that girls as young as six would choose a game that involved trying “really, really hard” vs. being “really, really smart.” Boys the same age, however, didn’t hesitate to take on the “really smart” games. Not only did this suggest that girls often believed they weren’t smart enough, but also that this belief would impact their choices, and they would most often select less riskier options that involved guaranteed success.

Couple this with helicopter parenting and girls don’t stand a chance. Too often we coddle our kids—girls, especially—because we want them to be safe, and to always feel secure in what they do. We try our darnedest to protect them from every real and virtual threat, swaddling them in bubble wrap and shielding them from mean kids and sharp paring knives.

What we don’t realize is that in order to succeed, they have to learn to fail. And sometimes hard.  

I should know this. Years ago, when I started writing my dissertation, I spent months working on my prospectus, hammering out my ideas and pouring my whole heart into the process. But I was wracked with self-doubt. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to write about, or why I was even trying. So many of my peers were smarter than me, far more brilliant, far more driven.

I agonized over 45 pages and submitted them. After a week or so, they were returned to me with a blistering critique. I cried for days. Days. I considered quitting grad school.

But then, after bawling through no less than six boxes of Kleenex, I started writing again. This time, though, I pounded out an outline that was much more cogent than anything I’d ever written before. I had hit rock bottom hard, but I knew that there was only up to go. And I was running all the way.

My daughter, I realize now, doesn’t need me to run over with a safety net every time she’s climbing a ladder, even if she might fall. What she does need is encouragement—and to figure out for herself that she’s a really, really smart kid.


Lynn Ink is a university-level educator, writer, editor, women’s rights advocate and mom to three teens and a Border Collie. She loves Netflix binge-watching, blueberry pancakes and researching everything from historical events to remote places. She squirrels away most of her writing for no one to read, but is happy to share her work with LiveYourDream to help women and girls achieve their fullest potential. Currently, she’s working on a novel about a caregiver who chucks it all for an epic road trip and an In-N-Out burger. Maybe she’ll share it one day.

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