Innovating Education: What Do Kids Really Learn from Failure?

education consulting

This basic story, which has found favor with journalists as well as certain theorists and therapists, seems plausible on its face because some degree of failure is unavoidable and we obviously want our kids to be able to deal with it. On closer inspection, though, I think there are serious problems with both the descriptive and prescriptive claims we’re being asked to accept.

Is failure rare? The idea that “kids today” have it too easy is part of a broader conservative worldview that’s been around for a long, long time. Children are routinely described as coddled and indulged, overprotected and overpraised. But I’ve been unable to find any data to support this claim, which may explain why it rests mostly on provocative anecdotes. Even if we could agree on how much protection (or parenting) merits the prefix over-, there’s simply no proof that the phenomenon is widespread, much less that it’s more common today than it was 10, 20, 50, or 100 years ago.



Moreover, even if it were shown that some parents cushion their children more than you or I think they should, that doesn’t mean these kids are unacquainted with frustration or failure. To see life through a child’s eyes for even a short time is to realize that, quite apart from a parent’s willingness to intervene, children frequently come up short, don’t get what they want, and find themselves on the receiving end of critical judgments from their peers or adults.

Is failure useful? A hypothetical child who managed to succeed in every one of his endeavors, or who always got everything he desired, might well find it hard to cope if things suddenly turned sour. But are we entitled to conclude from this fanciful thought experiment that failure is beneficial, or that parents and teachers should deliberately stand back rather than help out?

Research certainly doesn’t support the idea that failure or disappointment is constructive in itself. A “BGUTI” (better get used to it) rationale — the assumption that children are best prepared for unpleasant experiences that may come later by being exposed to a lot of unpleasantness while they’re young — makes no sense from a psychological perspective. We may want kids to rebound from failure, but that doesn’t mean it’s usually going to happen — or that the experience of failure makes that desired outcome more likely. […]

Read more Alfie Kohn: What Do Kids Really Learn from Failure?.

Kohn lives (actually) in the Boston area and (virtually) at Follow him on Twitter at @alfiekohn.


Jim Woods is president of The Jim Woods Group. A management consulting firm. Go here to see his work He advises and speaks to organizations large and small on how to increase top line growth in times of uncertainty and complexity. Some of his speaking and consulting clients include: U.S. Army, MITRE Corporation, Pitney Bowes, Whirlpool, and 3M. See more at his website

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