Why You Need to Let Your Kid Be a Loser

February 8, 2013

Commence eye rolling.


This is exactly how your children’s teachers grade papers.

The color red has been put on notice.  It is not welcome in schools.  I thought we were supposed to be colorblind, but I guess that’s not the case.

Yes, not all colors are created equal, at least when it comes to the colors teachers choose to grade student papers with.  For ages, the color of choice has been red, for it’s boldness and contrast against black or blue student writing.  But a recent study is being wielded by a new wave of parents who apparently have solved every other problem with our educational system.

Parents point to the “scientific” proof that the color red needlessly stresses their kids out, and is commonly associated with warnings and being wrong.  You read that right.  Kids whose papers get marked up in red might feel that the teacher is calling their answers “wrong,” according to parents.

Now, if you can recover from your eyes rolling all the way back into your heads, let me continue.

If I were a parent, I’d go to the store and buy my kids’ teachers a big box of red pens right now.  Here’s why.

Failure Is Not An Option…It’s Mandatory

It’s painfully obvious to me that parents who don’t like red pens have no coping skills when it comes to failure, and they are passing on this psychosis to their children.  Instead of learning how to deal with failure, some parents try to insulate their kids from failure at all costs.

Contrast that to this rock star mom, who implores people to let her kids fail, for their own good.

How did we get to this point?  How did we go from winning WWII to griping about teachers using red pens on our kids’ homework?  I don’t know, but as a teacher, I do know a few things about kids and failure.

Fear of Failure Is a Learned Behavior

When kids are little, they don’t think about consequences or dangers.  They have to be taught that some things should not be done, for the sake of safety.

But kids also don’t perceive the “danger” of failure.  Kids love to try things, regardless of the outcome.  Kids learn to be afraid of failure from the adults around them, and that’s usually Mom and Dad, not the teacher with her red pen.  It is adults who are often petrified of failure, and this fear is projected onto children.  My guess is the kids couldn’t care less what color their teacher uses.

Fear of Failure Limits Children

Parents who fear failure don’t teach their children how to have a positive attitude toward what is an inevitable fact of life (whatever color it comes in.)

Like fire, knives, dogs or household bleach, failure is something that children should be taught to consider and respect.  But fearing failure is a disability that harms children throughout their adult lives.  When children are taught to avoid failure at all costs, their adult lives are going to be spend taking massive detours around failure (like talking about teachers’ pens), rather than pursuing meaningful work.

Success Is More Than An Absence of Failure

I think adults have an overblown sense of failure, because they don’t know what success is.

If you are defining success as merely the absence of failure, that’s a pretty low way to live your life.  Anyone can avoid failure by just having low expectations.

But if you define success as learning from your failures, suddenly the world is open to you.  Failure has become a tool for learning and growth.  The only real failure is not learning from your failures.

Let Your Child Be a Loser

Finally, children who are taught to avoid failure, and all of the feelings that are associated with it, never figure out how to deal with those feelings of anxiety, stress or embarrassment.  They only learn that some feelings should be avoided at all costs (and if that involves a pill later in life, so be it.)

A child who is never allowed to lose never learns how to be a gracious loser.  Next time you play a game with your kid, don’t just let them win.

A child who is never allowed to fall never learns how to pick himself up.  Next time your kid trips and falls, let him rescue himself.

And that is a travesty.  A child who is not allowed these experiences is not a whole person.  They are not prepared to be functional adults.

Tell me what you think.  Are the parents onto something?  Or is this one more snowflake in an avalanche of babying the next generation?

19 responses to Why You Need to Let Your Kid Be a Loser

  1. Meh. The article was interesting, but I’d like to see a list of the “hundreds of US schools” (gasp!) that have banned red pens. This sounds like another one of those news stories where they take an esoteric bit of research and make it sound like everyone’s implementing it, bringing about The End of The World As We Know It. It seems like this is what amounts to news when you cut back on staff.

    Come on, folks. No one just *gives* away grant money and academics have to eat, too.

    • Hi Abby, I sure don’t have a list but have some firsthand experience – I’ve taught in two countries, several states with ages ranging from 1st grade to adult learners in the last 10 years – red pens have been a huge no-no for making corrections in every school/university with which I have been involved!

      So, I use purple instead 😉

  2. I think you are onto something. I know people whose parents probably thought they were being helpful by shielding them from the consequences of small things like not turning in their homework or spending all their pocket money when they were kids or teens. Problem is, because they didn’t learn it when they were younger, the innate connection between action and consequences doesn’t naturally make sense to them and so doesn’t always factor into their decision making. Might not have seemed to matter when they weren’t turning in homework, but it matters a lot now that they are adults and doing things like not showing up to work.

  3. You hit this one out of the park. As I have worked with youth and my own kids, this is one of my biggest frustrations with schools and organized sports. We have moved into an era where no one is allowed to lose or fail. The argument is that this failure or loss might be detrimental to the child’s self esteem.

    Uh hello?!?! Reality check helicopter mom/dad – your child’s first, second and following employer won’t CARE about your child’s self-esteem. The employer has a job that needs to be completed. That employer is primarily concerned with their employee doing that job correctly.

    Allow kids to fail. Let them learn to get back up, learn and succeed.

    • That’s awesome Greg. As a teacher (and not a parent) my hope is to make my classroom a place where failure is a SAFE option! Isn’t that where the real learning happens?

    • Greg–

      Okay, I’m going to play devil’s advocate here, since that seems to be what I like to do…

      First of all–didn’t the whole “everybody wins!” thing in organized sports for young kids also come about as a reaction to uber-competitive alpha male dads going bats–t when their kid lost? I seem to recall that being an issue as much as the self-esteem one.

      Secondly–not sure what age level you coach, but I’m not convinced that organized sports is all that beneficial for every kid.
      Mind you, my opinion is colored by my own personal experience with organized sports, which, prior to high school, pretty much only consisted of gym class. Since I was slow and clumsy, I always got picked last, and if the team I was on lost (which was often) I was the one that got blamed for it. And, no, I don’t think the experience of competition helped, nor did losing benefit me in any way. I didn’t become a better player–I either got shuffled out to the outfield where I didn’t have to do anything or I just continued to suck. The kids I was teamed up with never learned to become gracious in defeat–they just discovered one more reason to treat me like crap. Nor did I become a “better loser”–I just learned to really hate organized sports, and hate my classmates even more for acting like rotten little turds.

      Now, don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t warped for life by the experience, and I enjoyed competing when I got to high school and found something that I didn’t stink at. It’s just that I fail to see the great benefit of encouraging athletic competition among elementary-aged kids. If they’re relatively good at a sport and they enjoy it, I guess that’s one thing. But I wouldn’t go around assuming that it’s something that every kid that age needs to do in order to “build character” or something.

  4. YES!! As the husband of a teacher and parent of 3 kids I couldn’t help laughing and punching the sky in agreement.

    I’m so tired of parents who baby and pander to their kids. I could rant for awhile, but that would be preaching to the choir. Great words, Matt. Keep ’em coming.

  5. Matt, thank you! I wish you could be my daughter’s teacher!

  6. There is a lot of failure and disappointment in life.

    Better to have people get used to it early in life. They’ll be much better prepared to handle it later on.

  7. The trick is to engender resilience in our kids and allow them to learn how to deal with adversity and setbacks. The word “failure” and “loser” are loaded terms that really have no place in this discussion. Far worse than the coddling parent is the one who abuses with these same words. I spent 30 years teaching 5th and 6th graders to learn from the consequences of their behaviors, and to not fear the struggle of learning and growing. I used every color pen imaginable, but I never used the terms “failure” or “loser.” Just saying.

  8. Point# 1:
    – I hated seeing red marks on my paper when I was in school…
    – As a result, I tried to do as good I could so that I WOULDN’T see them.
    – Turns out those red marks were a blessing!

    Point# 2:
    If we just change the color of the pen to a new color… it won’t take long before we’re banning that color as well. If everyone starts marking papers with blue, then blue will become the new red.

    We need to stop being so sensitive and let our kids fall once in awhile. When we let them fall down, they’ll get up stronger and smarter.

  9. Agreed! One of my favorite classes in college was a class in which my professor tore apart my math proofs, but then said I could redo it as many times as I wanted and he would recheck it. I LEARNED more in that class than most others…and it was way less stressful knowing I could try again.

  10. Very true. As a parent of a 5 year old, it was difficult to see my child react to failing or getting something wrong when she was 2/3. As she approached school age, I quickly stopped that mindset. She still cries sometimes when she gets something wrong but I tell her it’s ok to be wrong sometimes! It’s not the end of the world and that she can do it again. Growing up, I hated being wrong but I learned to deal with it and learned from my mistakes and not obsess over it. I’m all for letting kids get things wrong. How else will they learn? Parents have to try not to shield kids from everything.