How Do You Build Resilient Kids? Let Them Learn to Fail

05/24/2017 02:16 pm ET Updated May 25, 2017
Rankin McGugin with her siblings circa the early 1990s.
Rankin McGugin with her siblings circa the early 1990s.

Summer is upon us, and moms (and dads) everywhere are biting their nails about how to keep their kids learning and thriving all summer. As the founders of the Homer learning program for kids ages 2-8, we’re often asked for tips on how parents can fill the summer months with valuable learning experiences for their children.

This summer, we’ve got an unconventional tip for over-achieving parents everywhere: give your child a chance to fail this summer.

Okay. Okay. We’re not suggesting you manufacture hardship for your child over the summer months or create a resilience bootcamp in the backyard. But we can’t resist sharing a piece by our rockstar Homer mom, Rankin McGugin, mother of 3 (with one on the way), and - if that weren’t enough - a brain scientist to boot. Rankin reminds us - a generation of parents who, whether we want to admit it or not, hover way more than our own moms did - about the importance of failure in developing resilience, creativity and humility. So, while you’re designing your summer star chart and filling out medical forms for camp, take some notes from our resident brain researcher: it’s healthy for kids to experience a little boredom, a little discomfort and - are you ready? - a little failure, if we want them to grow up to be the kind of people we’d choose to spend a summer vacation with!

From Rankin: Learn to Fail Well

The rise of helicopter parenting is no surprise when you consider how much more delightful it is to watch your child succeed than to fail. Why not hover around them, preventing every stumble, never allowing them to feel an ounce of boredom or discomfort? Well, for one, it’s obnoxious. But here’s the real reason: children need failure to build their internal resilience, and they need this resilience to get through the curve balls life will inevitably throw at them.

Children are born with immense adaptive potential, but we slowly rob them of this developmental right in our attempt to protect them from failure and regret. We want all their experiences to be the same, to be successes and victories. But what they need from time to time is to take a nose-dive, botch it up, get it wrong, and learn to try again a different way.

A recent article in Scientific America is entitled “One reason young people don’t go into science? We don’t fail well.” Luckily for me, I grew up the third of four children, quickly mastering the art of failure in an atmosphere of competition. When my older brother disapproved of my prom date, I’d find another. When my big sister raised her eyebrows at my bleached jorts and camo tank-top, I’d head back to my closet. When the jokes in my drama speech failed to evoke laughter from even my baby sister, I’d rewrite them. I turned my pattern of trying and failing and trying again into a career, and became a scientist. Because this is what scientists do: we try and, more often than not, we fail. But now I have children of my own, and I pain to watch them fail. We’ve all heard it said that failure is the best teacher. Still, it is achingly difficult to sit back and watch our children crash and burn, when helicoptering over them is all too convenient.

Here’s the science behind it: learning can transpire in two contradictory paths. The first is reward-based learning, which originates from a positive brain response that reinforces experiences that feel ‘good’ (think: sharing a toy and receiving applause); and the second is avoidance learning, whereby a negative experience trains the brain to avoid repeating the same mistakes (think: saying an ugly word and going to time out). Scientists at USC use magnetic resonance imaging to show that the developing brain responds similarly to failure as it does to regret, recognizing when something was done incorrectly and learning to adapt behavior for the future.

Children’s brains are not hard-wired at birth; they are dynamic and influenced by learning throughout the course of a lifetime. But research on brain plasticity highlights the critical period of childhood, during which neural processes prune unused connections in the brain and strengthen existing ones. In order to fully develop, children need a little failure, a little stress.

Not all stress is bad. UC Berkeley researcher Daniela Kaufer supports the benefits of stress on the brain, which include improved cognitive performance, more stable memory formations, and even the development of new neurons. So let’s give our children a chance to fail, to form those experiences of regret, and to use these memories to adapt and learn. Then we can send them off into the world, confident we’ve allowed them to learn how to fail well.

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