Allowing them to fail

Like most Australians, I like to spend time relaxing at the beach over summer. While my own children are beyond the age of digging in the sand and making sand castles there are usually plenty of other kids scattered along the beach having a go at this iconic Australian pastime.

During my most recent beach holiday I found myself watching three young children working tirelessly at building a castle. They had the buckets and spades going at a frantic pace and before long had constructed a castle of considerable size. But what these youngsters didn’t realise was that the tide was coming in. The first wave that lapped the edges of their castle was met with squeals of frustration but so committed were they to their task, they quickly brushed this aside and kept going. It was relatively easy to repair the damage made by this first wave and so they continued building and sculpting their masterpiece.

After a few more waves and cries of despair, the castle was looking quite forlorn. But these kids were persistent and kept digging and shoveling sand with increased vigour. At this point I wanted to go over and offer a friendly “teacher type” explanation on tides and encourage them to abandon their mission or relocate to higher ground. It was starting to get frustrating for me to watch them struggle along when I knew their cause was futile. The tide would win out, they would not succeed and I knew it. But with the “stranger danger” message going through my mind I resisted the temptation to bring correction or redirection and continued to watch.

It took around five more minutes of the castle building, waving destroying cycle for them to abandon their pursuit altogether. With sighs of defeat they headed toward the beach for a paddle.

The next morning they were back at the beach and so was I. Amused by their escapades the day before; I was intrigued as to how they would approach their sandcastle building today. I was close enough to hear their conversation, which went somewhere along the lines of – “let’s not build our castle so close to the water today”, “Yeah, the waves wrecked it!” They trudged a few metres up the sand and began their castle building again – this time far enough away not to be affected by the rising tide.

This simple illustration reinforced in my mind the importance of allowing our kids time and space to play, explore and problem solve without the continued input and interference from us adults. I was impressed to see that these 4 or 5 year old children had both recognised the problem and discovered a solution for themselves – even without my wise words of wisdom. There are certainly times when gentle guidance and correction is required to help kids make safe and wise decisions. But not allowing them to fail at something and figure out how to make it work for themselves, robs them of the opportunity to develop resilience, coping strategies and problem solving abilities.