I fail. You fail. It’s a part of life, right? At our age, we accept it (usually). And if we are really mature, we may even embrace our failures using them as opportunities to learn and grow.
But when it comes to our kids, it’s a completely different story, isn’t it? As a mother of four, it is very hard for me to watch my children fail. From the second they came into this world, my natural instinct has been to protect them—to keep them from falling, getting hurt, or experiencing pain in any realm of life (physical, emotional, spiritual, or mental). But failure is a part of every person’s life, including our children.
We can try to protect, prevent, or set up boundaries that will keep them safe, but (ironically) we will fail miserably at doing this! From the skinned knee, to hurtful teasing, to not making the team, or to doing poorly on a test, our kids will experience failure. With friends, at school, on the field, on stage, at church, even in our own homes under our watchful eyes, they will inevitably feel the sting of defeat. So what’s a mother to do?
Hovering vs. Hands-Off
I have seen two basic approaches that come from two different ends of the spectrum (and, of course, everything in between). On one side, there’s the overprotective mom (some may refer to her as a “helicopter mom”) who tries to structure her children’s lives so that failure is not an option.
These moms are well-meaning and conscientious. They love their children and want only the best for them, but they step in quite often to make sure their kids never experience defeat, hurt feelings, or even discomfort. This can take on many forms, like intervening with their children’s friends, emailing and calling coaches and teachers, or providing all the “extras” they think their children need to succeed.
I empathize with these mothers because I’ve been there myself. Yes, I am guilty of doing all of those things! It is easy to rationalize our interference or, dare I call it, our manipulation, because our motives seem pure. Notice that I used the word “seem.” Although experience has taught us , as C. S. Lewis said, that “failures are the finger posts on the road to achievement,” we really don’t believe it when it comes to our children. We would much rather help our children achieve success and happiness without them ever experiencing the pain of failure.
But then there are other moms (a rare species, I might add) who take a totally different approach to failure. I have watched these moms carefully with much curiosity and sometimes amazement. I don’t even know what to call them. Wise? Experienced? Balanced? They are not necessarily laid back (although they may appear to be). They are not apathetic or unconcerned. They love their children and want the best for them just as much as any other mom. They are involved in their children’s lives and care a great deal about who they are and what they do, but their approach to failure is entirely different. Some may even call it “hands-off.” They don’t step in very often, even when it seems like they should. They make comments like, “This is a good learning experience.” Or, “Kids are more resilient than we think.” And, “They will eventually figure things out.” Oh, how I pray to be more like this! I want to have the courage and conviction to teach my kids how to embrace failure instead of how to avoid it.
But I also have to acknowledge that not letting my kids fail is really my problem, not theirs. I have come to realize that when I make a huge, epic, over-the-top, how-dare-you-do-this-to-my-child deal over a hurt or disappointment that my child experiences, I am not really fixing anything. In fact, my actions often have the opposite effect of what I intended.
Ask any teenager whose parents have berated a coach because their child did not get enough playing time in the game. Watch those kids closely. They are the ones on the sidelines with their eyes cast downward and shoulders slouched, hoping and praying to go unnoticed. Their parents have set such high expectations that they are paralyzed by the fear of disappointing everyone: their parents, their coaches, their teammates . . . and themselves.
When I step in to right a perceived wrong, I might get my point across to the offending party, but I am sending a pretty strong message to my child as well. Do you know what that message is? That failure is not okay. That if they fail, it is not acceptable. That they are not acceptable unless they succeed. Ouch.
Following God’s Example
Is that what God tells us when we fail? Is that how my heavenly Father treats me when I stumble and fall? God knows we are weak and frail. He is there with strength and hope. Isaiah 40:30–31 says, “Even youths will become weak and tired, and young men will fall in exhaustion. But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength.”
Instead of using my children’s failures, pain, and hurt to highlight how unfair life is or how disappointing people can be, I should use these experiences to point them back to God and his all-consuming love for them. Romans 5:3–5 teaches us that, “problems and trials . . . help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love.”
But this is hard, I know. When you hold your crying child in your arms, or when he runs to his room to hide the pain on his face and the hurt in his heart, it is so tempting to go into “mama bear” mode and fiercely defend your precious cubs. In these moments, the Bible provides some sound advice for us moms:“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding” Proverbs 3:5 (NIV).
Learning to LET GO
If I truly trust God with my kids and their lives, I also have to trust that he allows pain, hurt, and failure into their lives as well. Leaning on my own understanding makes me want to protect my kids and prevent pain at all costs. But trusting God means I can let go, allowing him to use failure for their good and his glory.
What does it look like to LET GO when our kids face failure?
Lean not on your own understanding.
Embrace the hurt, pain, and failure.
Trust God with your children’s lives.
Give comfort and support.
Overcome the failure together with grace and humility.
That is one of my goals this year: to rely on God as I keep learning how to let go and let my kids fail.
Carla Gasser lives in Ohio and serves as a Christian women's speaker and Bible study teacher. You can read more by Carla at CarlaGasser.com.