Written by Shaun Swartz

My 5th grader got a “D-” on a vocabulary test last week and I gave myself a parental pat on the back.

I had not reminded him that he had a test to study for, and as a result, my son had not studied his vocabulary words prior to the test.

The previous week, my son lost his list of vocabulary words the night before the test, not yet having studied them, so I did what any “good” mother would do – I called another parent from our class, who then texted me a photo of the vocab words.


I hated myself for that one. Why? I did not teach him to succeed, but I rescued him – and in rescuing him, I took away a teachable moment on how to deal with failure.

So as a parent, I am far more proud of the D- than the A- he got when I helicoptered him to safety. As a result, he has been more conscientious about keeping track of both his vocabulary words and his test dates. This may seem a trivial example, but it reflects a current behavior in society.

In such an achievement-driven culture where we abundantly award medals and trophies, strive for A-grades, and view our children’s successes as a direct reflection of our parenting skills, where is the room for risk-taking and failure? How do our children know they have succeeded if they have not been allowed to fail?

When my 13-year-old was preparing for his first sailing adventure summer camp experience with ActionQuest – living aboard a 50-foot sailing yacht with 11 strangers for three weeks – I found myself spouting a stream of consciousness of advice, trying to download every piece of information I had gleaned from my 6 summers of working with ActionQuest. Everything from “wash your water bottle out every couple of days so it doesn’t grow mold” to “don’t forget your clothing on the lifelines of the boat.” I had to take a breath and stop myself. All of those things were learned through my experience with our teen adventure trips, which meant my son, too, would eventually learn the same things. On day 2, my son lost one of his towels overboard because he had not attached it to the lifelines properly; it didn’t happen again.

Yes, I am citing examples of 13 and 11 year-olds on our teen adventure trips, but if our culture is not allowing children to fail early-on and not encouraging them to take risks, one has to wonder at what point will they be allowed to deal with failure and thus foster the independence and responsibility they need to be contributing members of our society. What are the implications of not allowing this failure to shape their perspective early in life? For it is in failing that lessons are learned and skills are developed. The value of failure in a safe, supportive environment is that it allows our children to make errors, adjust, and become better problem-solvers in their futures.