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Fail Safe

Kids don’t always need your protection

Today, I’ve asked Amy Edmondson to share her Tip of the Week. 

Almost a decade ago, when my son Jack was 16, he decided to take a summer job selling solar panels door-to-door. Instinctively, I wanted to talk him out of it. Jack was an introvert, and he’d be in for a lot of rejection. Better to protect him from responses that could be indifferent, rude, or perhaps even downright hostile, I thought—and possibly from a miserable few months. 

As a parent, it’s natural to want to shield your kids from failure. Why should they live through the painful mistakes you can see from a mile away?  

But failure is essential to learning—in particular, a kind researchers call intelligent failure. Intelligent failures happen when you try something new in pursuit of a worthy goal (in a situation that presents no serious safety risk). Whether it’s picking up a new sport, taking a challenging math class, or making new friends, kids will encounter setbacks and disappointments. Without experiencing a healthy dose of intelligent failure, children might develop a habit of avoiding risk.   

Ask yourself: Is my child about to do something that’s physically safe and without reputational risk? If the answer is “yes,” then let them do it. Your job is to make the family environment a psychologically safe place to learn—which sometimes includes failure as well as conversations about setbacks and successes alike. 

As for my son Jack, I bit my tongue against all my parental instincts. He took the job and got turned away at a lot of doors. But he made a few sales and was excited to be transforming some of New England’s roofs—and the experience sparked an interest in renewable energy to this day. 

Don’t shield kids from the frustration of failing.

Do encourage young people to try things that feel uncomfortable. Talk about times you failed in the pursuit of a new goal or hobby. And when they encounter setbacks, acknowledge how hard it is without trying to solve their problems for them. When they do get small wins on their own, that makes success all the sweeter.   

With humility and gratitude, 


Amy Edmondson is a professor of leadership and management at Harvard Business School and the author, most recently, of Right Kind of Wrong: The Science of Failing Well.