A bumpy road: Failure may be the secret to your child’s success

File photo. File photo.

Several years ago I received an e-mail from a mother who was putting together an end-of-season celebration for my youngest daughter’s soccer team. In addition to party details, the message requested money to buy trophies for the players. Trophies? For a team that had just gone 0-8? Ridiculous, I thought. But I didn’t want to be that mom, so I kept my mouth shut and ponied up $15.

Last year, the same daughter came home from seventh grade excited about auditioning for a solo in her school’s winter jazz band concert. As the days went by, I couldn’t help but notice that very little trumpet music was coming from her bedroom. Not surprisingly, my daughter arrived home from school on try-out day and told me the solo had gone to someone else.

While sympathetic to her disappointment, I reminded her that she’d practiced very little, and probably didn’t perform the piece as well as the competition, and therefore neither earned nor deserved the solo. I’d like to say she nodded her head in understanding, gave me a hug, and over a shared bowl of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia, we discussed the merits of hard work. Alas, my child threw down her backpack and stormed upstairs, where she stayed behind a locked door with her cat until hunger got the better of both of them.

But a few months later, when another opportunity was offered up, she practiced. A lot. And in May my kid played a terrific trumpet solo during her band’s spring concert.

When my children were much younger I met Wendy Mogel, a Los Angeles-based psychologist and author of the books The Blessings of a Skinned Knee and The Blessings of a B-. To this day, I remember Mogel telling me that as my girls got older they would fail—and that’s O.K. Making mistakes is crucial to a child’s ability to face bigger adversities later in life, Mogel said, and she cautioned that I should “resist the urge to intervene and rescue” them.

Putting aside the fact that it’s in a mother’s DNA to intervene and rescue her children, Mogel’s advice was some of the best, albeit the toughest, that I’ve received in my nearly two decades of parenting. As they’ve grown up, my girls have probably lost as often as they’ve won—even when they’ve been good at something—and I realized early on that calling teachers, coaches, or friends’ parents when things didn’t go my kids’ way wasn’t in anyone’s best interest.

I had to keep reminding myself that it’s not my job to manipulate my children’s losses into victories. It’s my job to assist them as they work through setbacks. I’m there to help them focus on their goals, and to realize there’s something valuable to be learned when the outcome isn’t what they’d hoped for or expected.

Mogel recently said that college deans have begun referring to some incoming freshmen as “teacups,” because they’re so fragile they break down when life becomes challenging.

“Well-intentioned parents have been metabolizing their children’s anxiety for them their entire childhoods,” Mogel said of these kids. “So they don’t know how to deal with it when they grow up.”

Some parents, she added, “perceive the world as so competitive and dangerous—there are only 10 good colleges, the drugs are stronger, sex more dangerous—that they wish for their child to go straight from sweet third grader to junior statesman. They hope that with the right strategy their child can skip the stage of adolescence—of risk-taking, bad choices, oversleeping, and sketchy friends—entirely.”

This fall, my eldest is headed to college, a place where she’ll probably take even more risks, make a few bad choices, oversleep a lot, and pal around with people I might not approve of. Does this make me nervous? You bet it does. Here’s the thing, though: Over the course of nearly 18 years, my daughter has won plenty, but she’s also hit some bumps and suffered a setback or two. She’s fallen, and she managed to get back up and brush herself off, a little battle-weary at times, but wiser and better prepared for what lies ahead. She’s learned that life is messy; bad things can happen. Her world isn’t perfect. Her father and I hope that, through trial and error, our first-born has figured out how to solve her own problems and make smart choices. We like to think she’s no teacup.

In a New York Times Magazine cover story, the headmaster at a prestigious private school said, “People who have an easy time of things, who get 800s on their SATs, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they’re doing is great. And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, then I think they’re screwed, to be honest. I don’t think they’ve grown the capacities to be able to handle that.”

Which brings me back to that $15 trophy. Last summer, when we were in the thick of re-doing my younger daughter’s bedroom, she came clanking down the stairs, dragging a bag that she dropped on the floor at my feet. When I looked inside, I saw it was filled with trophies and medals. “You want to throw them all away?” I asked. “Yes,” she answered. “I didn’t really do anything to earn any of them, so they don’t mean much.”