why i like to give my son opportunities for failure

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Last week I wrote a post in which I talked a little bit about how I like to give Archie (my ten year old with Down syndrome who we adopted from Bulgaria at age seven) opportunities to fail. I got several responses from people who were concerned with my love for a good failure. Some insinuated that was cruel and unnecessary. So I thought I would go into a little more detail about what I mean.

One commenter asked, "You 'love' giving him opportunities to fail? Doesn't life do that?" Of course, life gives every single person in the world chances to make poor choices. That's not the point. Down syndrome or not, life gives us all plenty of chances for failure daily. As Archie's mother, it is my responsibility to give him opportunities for small failures. The thing is, if he isn't allowed minor failures today, then there is a much greater chance of him making catastrophic mistakes later in life. So yes, when I see an opportunity for him to potentially make a bad decision (that won't be harmful to himself or anyone else), I jump on it, step back, and let him learn.

His first Christmas home, we were walking through Urban Outfitters and he came across a lovely display of shiny, very breakable ornaments. His eyes lit up and he walked up to the ornaments and stuck his chubby little hand out to grab one. I KNEW what was about to happen. If I wanted to take the easy, less stressful way out, I would have grabbed that ornament out of his hand and told him not to touch them. But I just watched him dangle it in front of his eyes. His fingers separated and it was like slow motion watching that thing fall to the concrete floor and break.

To be clear, this was not Archie's first time in a store. And he had been told many times before not to touch things in stores, and especially not to drop things on the ground. HE KNEW. Would it have been fair for me to let him do that if I thought he didn't know any better? No. But, regardless of how helpless that boy can make someone think he is....he knew exactly what he was doing.

Luckily, the ornament did not smash into a bunch of pieces and I was able to pick up the few chunks and we went and stood in line to pay for it. I was also fortunate that my mom and sister were there with us, so I was able to whisk Archie home for a time out and leave Ace with them. A little while later Archie and I went back up to that store. He walked in with his hands behind his back and kept them there as we slowly strolled past the ornaments. And to this day, he remembers that incident and does not grab and break things in stores.

In my last post, I told a story about Archie losing cake privileges at a birthday party for attempting to blow out the kid's candles. And another commenter asked if I should have given Archie some sort of verbal cue when he was faced with a situation in which another mom was trying to get him cake. No! Most definitely not. Again, Archie knew what to do in that moment. Yes, he looked at me with a "is this a test?" face, and I could have absolutely said, "no, Archie, remember you aren't allowed any cake today." Of course I could do that. That would be EASY. But here's the thing- our goal for Archie is independence. And I am not going to be there holding his hand throughout every step of his life to say, "No, Archie, remember, we don't (fill in the blank)." He has got to learn to control his impulsiveness and make good decisions without me there to remind him.

This video shows one of my most proud mama moments. Ace and Archie had a choir performance at church. During rehearsal, Archie could not help himself from messing with the bright lights shining up from the floor. He kept reaching down and grabbing them, and earned himself several timeouts in the pew with me. I was certain come show time, those lights would catch his eye and he would be right down there on the floor with no concern of what was going on around him. But a miracle happened. Around 1:15 in the video, you will see his eyes find the lights. Then he grabs Ace's shoulder as if to say, "don't let me do it, sis." Then he signs "good boy" as a reminder to himself. He wants so badly to jump down and mess with those lights but he doesn't. He is fixated on them for the remainder of the performance, but he controlled himself. And he was so proud. And his dad and I were SO proud.

If I wanted to eliminate stress, and ensure that Archie could not screw up during the actual performance in front of a packed chapel, I could have had his teacher move him away from the lights. But then he wouldn't have had the opportunity for that great SUCCESS. And that smile and laughter in the end is him being so excited that he did the right thing. That is a major win.

So when I say I love to give Archie opportunities for failure, it is not because I am being mean or cruel. It is because I love him and I owe him that. I owe him the greatest chance at independence. I owe it to him not to take the easy way out on things, but to go through the struggles, and fights, and failures with him so that he can learn.

Thanks for letting me share,


  1. Thank you for sharing, Lisa. I will practice giving my little sister opportunities for small failures. I hadn't considered before that frequently reminding a kiddo of their expectations, especially when they already know them, can teach the opposite of self-regulation. Giving her chances for small failures will give her chances to learn. I owe it to her, too.

  2. Amen, sista! My three year with DS old gets regular & purposeful opportunities to make a good choice. Grace is extended when necessary and consequences are instituted when appropriate. But the celebration of victory is the best! Doesn't the Lord do the same with me?