Sep 22 / Simcha

What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?

KIPP Infinity middle school in Manhattan. (Tape Installation: Stephen Doyle. Photograph: Stephen Wilkes for the NYTimes)

More than anything, kids need a little difficulty, some challenge or deprivation that they can overcome, even if just to prove to themselves that they can.  If we take that opportunity away from them, their education – both at home and at school – is “missing out on some serious parts of what it means to be a successful human.”  We also inadvertently shield them from exactly the kind of experiences that can lead to character growth.

Two prominent New York City educators,  (New York Times,  What if the Secret to Success Is Failure?) came to this conclusion, having observed that alumni of their schools who succeeded later in life were not necessarily the ones who had excelled academically; they were, rather, the ones with exceptional character strengths, like optimism, persistence and social intelligence.  The successful young people were those who were able to recover from a bad grade and resolve to do better next time; to bounce back from a fight with their parents; to resist the urge to go out to the movies and stay home and study instead; to persuade professors to give them extra help after class.

David Levin, co-founder of the KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program*) network of charter schools and the superintendent of the KIPP schools in New York City, and Dominic Randolph, headmaster of the prestigious and competitive Riverdale Country School, observed that what is missing for so many students at academically excellent schools is the opportunity to experience struggle, to pull themselves through a crisis, to come to terms on a deep level with their  own shortcomings, and to labor to overcome them.

Alongside this academic reality where no one is allowed to fail at anything, are the parents with their instinctual impulse to provide “the best” for their children, to give them everything they want and need, to protect them from dangers and discomforts (both large and small). When parents’ and teachers’ feedback is always that everything their children is doing is great, they are actually setting them up for long-term failure.
* KIPP, the Knowledge Is Power Program, is a national network of free, open-enrollment, college-preparatory public schools with a track record of preparing students in under-served communities for success in college and in life. There are currently 109 KIPP schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia

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See also: 

Our Obsession with our Children’s Happiness

Why Overparenting is Harmful

On Spanx and Letting Your Kids Fails