“It’s such a wasted opportunity when a parent rescues a kid …”

Jessica Lahey, author of the new book “The Gift of Failure” is quoted as saying the above in response to the “no-drop-off” rule in place at a Florida high school making all sorts of waves on social media this past week. Parents were informed by their school principal that forgotten lunches and homework cannot be dropped off mid-school day for their children, with the emphasis being on the students learning a valuable lesson about responsibility.

Lahey and the school in Florida have landed on an important concept in child development – that of adaptation. But what is missing from the hype about all this talk about failure and why it is so good for our kids, is the talk about how. And in understanding how, you quickly come to see that blanket approaches meant to be a one-size-fits-all just simply don’t work.

Failure, period. is just not an approach that is going to be developmentally sound.

Failure when the conditions around a child suggest that child is ripe for adaptation – fantastic.
Failure when the conditions around a child suggest otherwise – potentially catastrophic.

Should Parents Rescue Their Children?

So let’s discuss the how of adaptation. But first, let me tell you a story.

There was a 14 year old girl that I had been working with for several months. She was anxious. She had some learning struggles. She had survived some pretty unsettling life events as a preschooler that had wired her brain to be sensitive to upset.

School was a trial for her. Sometimes the bar of success was simply getting her to school, much less having her excel and learn all sorts of amazing things that day. And one day she forgot her sharing project for science class. Her mom realized it as soon as she got home from drop-off and saw it sitting on the table in the front hall. She zoomed back down the street to the school but was stopped in the lobby by the school secretary who let her know that she could leave the project at the front office and if they could they would get it to her daughter, but they weren’t going to make any promises.

As it turns out, the project didn’t get to the daughter. The daughter was scolded by her teacher and given a failing grade. And let me tell you, the carnage this created in this child’s mind for the rest of that school term, and even into the next one were awful. And completely avoidable.  In this case, it is pretty clear that the extenuating circumstances of this student’s life situation really did merit an exception to the “no drop off” policy.

So why did this girl get sunk by the experience of failure while another child might grow and learn from such an experience? Because she was not in a place or space where adaptation was going to be possible.

Adaptation is only possible when a human being can: (1) accept that which cannot be changed; and (2) remain “soft” enough in their acceptance of such to feel disappointment and sadness about it. If either of these two conditions are not met, a child (or any human for that matter) cannot adapt. Instead they get angry and mad and shut down and harden up. There is no room for adaptation in that kind of an emotional mindset.

Should Parents Rescue Their Children?

The “no drop off policy” or the “failure is good” mantra miss the fact that not every child is primed for adaptation in every moment of every day.

If you keep throwing more failure at them, they aren’t going to adapt. They are going to harden and shut down. So while these kinds of one-size-fits-all approaches certainly draw a firm line that forces condition (1) into place, they fail to take into account that the next step will only unfold in a healthy way for a student who is able to find their sadness about that which cannot be and then, pick up, dust off, and move on.

All of this means that you really should only be placing condition (1) in place for a child who is in a position to grow from it. And for a child who is not? Well, this is where grey zones and do-over’s and second chances and external supports that allow for more successes are actually really important. And it is also where focusing on building positive relationships between kids and their “big people” – like their parents and their teachers – is key. It helps them find softer places to land and in turn, keeps them softer in the face of failure, allowing them to adapt. The last thing we want is for a child to harden and shut down. Nobody grows and develops and learns and adapts when that is where they are at.

How then are you to figure out which kids are in an emotional space and place to be able to handle failure and adapt accordingly and which are not? Well, you have to just sort through it moment by moment and day by day. There is no one size fits all. Just as there is no mantra like “failure is good” that we can staunchly adopt.

We have to feel kids. We have to sense their needs. Be inside their heads. We have to walk alongside them and figure it out.

I know for my boys – now ages 8 and 11 – I make those decisions based on my sense of their needs that day, that week, that month – even that year!! One of my boys is intensely sensitive and has many needs, while the other is more settled and less easily affected. The latter is the one who would definitely be able to sort through a forgotten homework assignment (and has), coming up with some ideas for better planning on the other side of that. But the one who is sensitive and has more needs – well that kind of an experience would utterly sink him. And so one gets failure and the other gets a rescue.

Because that is how I feel it. That is what I sense. And that is what it moves in me to be.

Dr V