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Why Your Children Need to Fail

By October 25, 20113 Comments

This past weekend I heard a fascinating interview with a Stanford professor of psychology named Carol Dweck, who is author of the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Dweck studies the psychology of failure, and what she has discovered not only has implications for parenting, but has the potential to shed insight on the Christian life as well.

In the interview, Dweck explained that failure is an important part of growth. Some of the most successful individuals in history–Michael Jordan, Abraham Lincoln, and Mozart, to name a few–all experienced tremendous failures that shaped who they would later become.

Although failure can result in growth, that doesn’t mean it will. In her research, Dweck discovered that children respond to failure in two different ways, depending on the way they think. Those children who are destroyed by failure–and therefore avoid challenges–are operating out of a fixed mindset. They believe that intelligence is a fixed trait that you either have or you don’t, so they avoid situations that might reveal personal incompetence. To them, failure is a sign that they lack intelligence, so they have no resilience in the face of a mistake.

On the other hand, some young people enjoy a challenge, and Dweck contends that they operate out of a growth mindset. They understand that their intelligence can develop, so they welcome challenge and see failure as a part of growth.

What does this research mean for parents? Dweck warns that the manner in which parents praise their children can encourage either a fixed mindset or a growth mindset. Those parents who focus on praising the intelligence of the child–ie. “You’re so smart! You are brilliant!”–foster a fixed mindset. And it backfires. The children become invested in their intelligence as a part of their identity, and thus become insecure when they fail. Dweck explains,

“The self-esteem movement almost brain-washed us, the idea we can hand our children self-esteem on a platter by telling them they’re great, they’re smart, they’re talented and gifted. It doesn’t work that way. Those statements make children more fragile.”

Luckily, parents can avoid this pitfall by praising the way that children think, or the way they approach a problem. Dweck tells parents to praise the process the child is engaged in. Praise the effort, strategy, the willingness to take on hard tasks, and their persistence in the face of obstacles. This way, children develop a growth mindset, enjoy difficulty, and can keep on going when they fail. Dweck adds,

“By saying, ‘I like the way you worked on that’ or ‘I like the strategies you’re trying’ or ‘I like that you picked that hard task. You’re going to learn from it!’ Those are the things that teach children how to build and maintain their self-esteem on their own while they’re growing.”

Dweck adds that “process praise” of children between the ages of 1 and 3 will predict their mindset and desire for challenge 5 years later. However, this early window is not all that determines one’s future mindset. Dweck encouraged listeners that this kind of mindset can be adopted at any age.

I think this research is so helpful, and it makes a lot of sense. Each year I hear more and more research that counteracts much of the self-esteem movement’s strategy. Apparently unearned heaps of praise are not always good for you, at any age.

This research also highlights a couple spiritual parallels between human development and spiritual growth. In the same way that a fixed mindset inhibits intellectual growth, I inhibit my faith when I assume myself to be more spiritually mature or perfected than I actually am. And in the same way that  children can grow from failure if they so choose, I can do the same in my spiritual life. Whether my failure is spiritual, moral, or professional, failure can be an opportunity to accept my weakness and embrace God’s strength. I can either crumble and despair, or I can allow my failure to be the location of growth and God’s glory. I find that to be a great reminder for Christians, as well as parents who are sure to make a few mistakes along the way.


  • Tim says:

    Great points, Sharon. It seems to me that it is impossible to separate the spiritual impact of how we nurture our children from other aspects or intentions of that nurturing.

    In raising our children, my wife early on insisted that we never tell our son he was a good boy, or our daughter that she was a good girl. Instead we spoke of what they did, so that the comment became, “You did such a good job” or “Wow you worked hard on that” or “What can we do to fix this problem?” or “Thank you for being so thoughtful”. I think this idea of process (growth mindset) over static condition (fixed mindset) has extended into their spiritual growth as well. At least I hope they see God as the one who loves them always and is interested in drawing them to himself continuously and for all time.


    P.S. Speaking of not telling someone she’s good, whenever someone was visiting and patted our dog and said “What a good girl” my wife would say “There’s nothing good about her”. Now my wife loved that dog, but she was really using this as an opportunity to remind herself of the truth in Mark 10:18.

    P.P.S. I married up.

  • Sarah says:

    This post is so good, and yet so hard. As a recovering perfectionist, it is the most difficult thing for me to sit by and watch my kids fail. But I know how important it is. When I was a child, I only thought I was worthy of love when I was performing well, and when I did fail, my world would crash around me because to my little girl heart, I could not distinguish ‘failure’ from ‘unloveable’.

    My daughter is in fourth grade, and it is KILLING ME to sit by as she forgets to turn in assignments and receives demerits for them, when all I want to do in swoop in and remind her to turn in her homework. God has given me enough grace that when she does get the bad grades for being irresponsible, I can sit with her, love her, help her work through the failure and more than anything, reinforce the idea that I love her and accept her whether she is shining like a star or falling flat on her face.

    Thank you again for sharing this study. Be blessed!

  • Laura says:

    Thank you SO much for this post! I grew up with that fixed mindset, and I definitely struggle with feeling like a failure when I don’t perform as well as I would like. Watching my 8-month-old daughter as her personality is developing is sometimes scary to me as I see how much she is really like me, and I appreciate nuggets of wisdom like this to help guide her to more of a growth mindset!

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