Helping Fail – A Plea to Parents

Erik AndersonCommunity News

In their 2009 book, When Helping Hurts, Corbett and Fikkert explained how some of our attempts at helping the poor and impoverished actually set them back in ways we do not expect. It is a sadly ironic situation – our desire to do the right thing and be philanthropic can drive misguided efforts that have the opposite effect from the goal. The book is about missions, and churches should take notice. However, I think the title and concept of that book would be worth consideration by parents as they reflect on their kids and ask themselves similar questions.

This month, Tricia is picking up the Children’s Ministry series on Confidence in Parenting and addresses how as parents we need to learn to let go so our kids can develop appropriately into interdependent adults. I wanted to vector off her article and address something I have seen in the Youth Ministry that I imagine begins in families when kids are at much younger ages. My encouragement to you parents out there? Let your kids fail.

I want to begin by stating two obvious assumptions. 1) This is not going to sound new to you. We all know about Tiger Moms and Helicopter Parents (which, by the way, sounds like an incredible Saturday-morning-cartoon cross betweenThundercats and GI Joe). We know that we should not over-protect, shelter, do our kids’ homework, or berate our kids’ College Professors over quiz scores. 2) Despite knowing this, we are all prone to it. Unless we are heartless Yetis who eat our young, then of course we are going to protect our children, want what’s best for them, and resist letting them hurt themselves.

So why do I bring this up?

In the Youth Ministry I have noticed two trends that seem to make this encouragement timely. First, students don’t know how to apologize because they don’t know how to mess up. Second, students love to joke about “failing” but have stripped that word of any meaning by incessantly and hyperbolically applying it to any slightly embarrassing error or less-than-mild faux pas.

I cannot tell you how often I try to have conversations with students about their poor decisions, irresponsibility or outright rebellion and there comes a point in our discussion when they look thoroughly bewildered. They feel bad, but they are incapacitated when I insinuate they would be right to apologize to someone. Apologize is a verb that seems to lack context or definition. It was hard for me at first to understand why those conversations were so hard. What I began to realize was they were terrified of owning up to a mistake. Everything was an accident, somehow out of their control, or had an elaborate series of reasons why they were not, in fact, in the wrong for dropping the ball, forgetting something, being wrong or otherwise at fault for something.

Now, I know nobody likes to be wrong, and apologizing without qualification or preface is hard for everyone. But this was different. They did not know how to fail.

How did this happen? I would refer you to Tricia’s article for more on this, but I think part of the problem is that many of our students have never been allowed to truly fail. They are always able to negotiate a make-up test, an extension on a deadline or a free pass. And when they aren’t, they have parents who will. When I gave a senior guy a hard time because his mother packed his suitcase for summer camp (yes, a 12th grade, 18 year-old male) – I also conceded that he probably never had to go a week with the inconvenience or discomfort of having forgotten something. Parents – with only good intentions and love for their children – can help in ways that hurt. Out of concern for their well-being they protect their kids from failure and unfortunately rob them of an important aspect of their development towards maturity.

Simultaneously, a new phenomenon entered the cultural milieu: Fail Blog. This admittedly hilarious blog used pictures, videos and bold captions to plaster the word FAIL across hilarious and unfortunate miscues, mishaps and misfortunes. Bad haircut? FAIL. Skateboarding accident? FAIL. Ninety percent of what you see on Americas Funniest Videos? FAIL. (The word even took on a weird usage as a noun where something would be labeled “a fail” with the corresponding use of the indefinite article).

Soon, anytime any student did something slightly embarrassing it could be labeled “a fail” with accompanying levels of social recognition and humor. Self-deprecation, harmless fun, and cruel belittling could all be exchanged with the currency of someone’s fail. But the problem with such abundant use of this word (most often as hyperbole) is that it begins to lose its meaning. Nobody knows what it truly means to fail at something – and the very possibility of that seems to elicit nothing less than terror.

And so in my conversations with students I’ve come to realize they can FAIL at putting cream cheese on a bagel but they do not know how to fail on an assignment. They can FAIL at picking out a matching outfit, but they do not know what it is to truly let someone down and take responsibility for it.

So again I will ask, why bring this up? What is the big problem with this? I think it has huge implications for how we understand the gospel. If we are cultivating people who do not know how to fail – then how will they make sense of grace? What is conviction other than a little whip cream on your face? What is repentance if you’ve never done anything that bad? What is forgiveness if there’s nothing to forgive? And what, therefore, is so amazing about grace?

As I think about my own life, I too have room to grow in this. I want to be able to apologize to someone because I trust in our relationship enough to hope that they will forgive me. I want my confidence in God’s love for me to give me the courage to risk my relationships by being honest about my failures. I want to be so grounded in the gospel that I understand the depths of my sin and therefore the utter heights of God’s grace in Christ. And I want my students to know this too. Not just so they will trust me enough to know I’ll forgive, but so that they too can delight in the amazing grace of God when it comes to our failure.

So parents, please, let them fail.