I Let My Son Fall and Fail


A playground encounter forces a dad to assert his right to parent.

Will loves the playground. And not just because it’s a fun way to spend a Sunday afternoon, but also because it’s challenging.

The one by our house has a cool plastic climbing structure that really makes Will work. It starts off vertical with holes throughout for hands and feet, before it twists down horizontally and then back up again before reaching the platform on the other side. It not only forces Will to think about where his hands and feet go, but also whether he wants to traverse the top portion or go underneath.

The result is many attempts that fail spectacularly.

As you can see in the picture, slips and falls are guaranteed as he learns the best ways to make his way along the structure. When we went yesterday, he fell off close to a dozen times before he finally made it. As you can see, the highest distance he can fall from is roughly 4 feet, and the entire ground is soft mulch that makes for a cushioned landing. So while I offer him plenty of cheerleading and advice when he asks for it, that’s the extent of my involvement. Because as long as you make sure they’re safe (which Will was), I think it’s important for parents to let kids find their own way without babying them.

Today there were a bunch of kids there with their parents. One mother of a boy who looked to be about 2 years old caught my eye, mainly because she couldn’t take her eyes off Will. Each time he fell she winced and looked disapprovingly in my direction. I’m used to that, as overprotective “playground moms” are unfortunately pretty common. But I did not expect what happened next.

Will tried to go on the left side to climb, got halfway there, and thought twice about his decision. So he attempted to go back to the platform to start over, then slipped but caught himself. The end result was him hanging from the top with one tippy-toe on the platform as he struggled to make it back to where he started. He whimpered a little bit and called out for me, but I told him he was doing great and he could figure out on his own if he stayed calm.

And that’s when “Playground Mom” decided she had enough because she walked briskly over to him and said “You need help sweetie? Give me your hand.”

I was furious but not exactly shocked since I had seen it building to that point for the previous 10 minutes. But I still wasn’t about to let it go without addressing it.

“Excuse me, but he doesn’t need your help and he’s fine. I’m his dad and I’m right here.”

“Well clearly he does need help because he’s about to fall,” she said in full condescending mommy tone.

“Maybe, maybe not. But either way he’ll be fine. I can parent my own kid.”

Then, just as she looked like she would blow her top, my boy came through big time and shut her up in the best way possible. Still hanging there, he politely said “No thanks, I can do it myself!” and proceeded to climb his way back to the platform without help from anyone.

“Imagine that,” I muttered with a victorious smirk as Mrs. Know-it-all Mommy McMommerson huffed away, no doubt to get more bubble wrap to insulate her poor son from every bump and bruise on the horizon.

Look, you can parent however you want but I have multiple problems with what happened. First of all, it’s just another in a long list of examples that show some moms think they know everything — especially compared to dads. To openly step in and insert herself with me — the kid’s actual parent — right there? Maybe she would’ve done the same to another mom, but I doubt it. It’s a shitty attitude and I’m unbelievably sick of it.

Second, we are raising a generation of kids who know nothing about taking risks. Even on the monkey bars and playgrounds of America, the minute they hit some turbulence and adversity mommy and daddy are there to rescue them — and give them a trophy in the process. It makes me ill. My son won’t be great at everything, but he’s going to try his damndest. Because every attempt ends in failure until it doesn’t. Every fall builds determination to finish. Every setback is a lesson learned that gets you one step closer to your goal.

I let my son fall — and fail — so his future accomplishments will be that much sweeter and well-deserved.

—first appeared at Daddy Files

About Aaron Gouveia

Aaron is husband to a woman far too beautiful to have married him, and father of two sons far too perfect to be his. After nearly a decade as a Boston-area journalist, he decided to actually get paid and became a content manager. When he's not griping about his beloved Boston sports teams, he's detailing life as a dad at The Daddy Files. You can follow him on Twitter (@DaddyFiles) and Facebook.


  1. Love this post! Before I enjoyed my role as a parent educator and author on discipline, I was an adjunct instructor at a large city college. It was clear that I was beginning to get more moms in my office than the students themselves, demanding that I change an assignment or marking period grade for her young adult child. The effect of too much “bubble wrap” parenting can be seen in the long lines at the court houses, filing law suits to blame someone else for their hardship or misfortune. We need to be building a generation of capable and resilient kids!

  2. Great article Aaron. I admire what you’re doing… and I think your son will too.

  3. Dear Sir, I respect your rational. I do. But I am afraid of heights. If my two boys are higher than my shoulders (ages now 5 and 7) I panic. Absolutely panic to the point I need to look away. Maybe the mom feels the same way. I see teeth knocked out by playground equipment, I see necks broken in a fall, I see many things. I might be the mom who offers to help a kid up or down but I wouldn’t do it because I think their parents aren’t present or accounted for, I’d do it because I’m absolutely petrified of watching a kid fall. You probably don’t want me at your playground and I think I’d love for you to take my kids to one so I’m not the mom always saying, “Ok, careful, be careful…” But maybe that mom isnt looking at you with evil eyes, she might just be wishing she could be more like you. I wish I could.

  4. Firstly let me say I love this article (which somebody very kindly left a link to on my own blog).

    Secondly, did you know that more children are admitted to hospital each year for falling out of bed than trees?!!! I’m with you, let them learn to do things rather than have their hand held all the time – that said I am extremely neurotic so have to fight the urge to be on the playground equipment with safety harnesses and hard hats.

    your son obviously learns the way you teach him and is becoming independent so keep up the good work.

  5. This is crazy escalation. If someone (anyone) calls out for help in my general vicinity, I’m going to help. I would not think less of the dad for letting his kid play on, and I certainly wouldn’t be giving him ocular lazerdarts, but his rebuff of help offered to his child seems rude and uncalled for to me.

  6. Missy: My actions were rude?? I was watching my son and encouraging him. Meanwhile a stranger took it upon herself to offer her “help” even though she knew full well I was his dad and I was right there. If you think my actions were rude, I don’t think you understand the meaning of the word.

    • This is exactly my point Aaron. Modern parents, as a group, are awful. Hovering, coddling, and co-dependent. Blech. This lady needs to learn to prepare the child for the path, not the path for the child.

  7. Loved this article and the comments are provacative.

    Here’s my take as the mom who probably would be watching your kids on the playground. Unfortunately, I’ve had to save many a kid from tragedy because their parents [albeit present] simply had no intention of parenting at the time. I’ve seen babies fall and kids nearly drown because their parents preferred to sit back and watch from afar. Even if they had seen the impending incident, they were so far removed from the vicinity and situation, they wouldn’t have arrived on time to prevent tragedy or to love on their child after the fact.

    Obviously, you were engaged with your child and had your eye out for him and his safety however, let’s be fair that many parents aren’t watching appropriately and things do go terribly wrong. I would have noticed your son’s Dad sitting there faithfully and stayed out of it. But the mom in the story may not have, and her natural instincts took over to assist.

    I no longer have little ones but I would rather be safe than sorry and revel in the fact that other parents could “care” for my child if they felt it was needed. There is a reason for our hovering; it’s often necessary. Thanks for listening!

  8. Tom Termini says:

    There can be many lessons from a single event — I might have told my son, “what a kind person, offering to help. That’s why strangers are friends we just haven’t made yet.”

    • Akelous River says:

      Isn’t that is one of the underling issues here? People offer help for their own reasons and they may or may not actually relate to what you are trying to do. That’s great knowledge for a boy. Those who offer help have their own motivations, in this case by a need to reduce their own personal anxiety.

      The boy should be free to refuse help and AAron should not be reproached. Some parents value self confidence, some value safety. I still support AAron’s goals and strategies. I wouldn’t have said a single thing.

      • I guess my perspective can be summed up as, how can I make this a teachable event? I’m less concerned with judgements passed, superior/inferior views promulgated, etc., over the concept that we should be open to the doors of perception.

  9. Caitlin says:

    A woman would absolutely do it to another mother. Women are the worst for mummy-judging. If anything they tend to cut the dads more slack.

  10. Wirbelwind says:

    Helicopter parenting is hurting your kids. Kids that aren’t allowed to run, fail, fall or figure something out on their own become crippled adults, incapable of living by themselves.

  11. Bobby Jean Simkins says:

    While a single parent to a 12 year old son and 6 year old daughter, I received orders to NAS Barbers Point, Hawaii. Both children were accomplished swimmers with lifeguard training, and Waimea Falls became a favorite destination. One visit coincided with a busload of tourists that lost their minds seeing children dive from the cliffs. I overhead threatening comments on what should happen to (insert colorful language here) parents that allowed kids to swim and dive at the falls. Threats became embarrassed silence when I spoke up, gently reminding them of my right to parent as I saw fit and the obvious fact my children were well prepared for their sport.

  12. Derrick L. Benson says:

    My dad wasn’t there, and when he showed up we really didn’t know each other. If he would have just been there…I liked the article, and please look at infant swimming and sef rescue. I believe watching him swim you and your wife being there will build evrything your trying to do. Me, I can’t wait to be the dad mine wasn’t.

  13. John R Huff Jr says:

    I believe you are much too focused on manliness and completion or something else. I find your article to be promoting your own outlook rather than your son’s. Taking risks is good sometimes and sometimes not so good. Focus on something more important to write about next time.

    • Akelous River says:

      Well it is a post on being a man and being a parent so I’m not sure why you think the emphasis on manliness is a problem. In this modern era it can be hard to claim our own manliness and to know what to show our sons. It can be very hard to deal with women intruding on our relationships and it can be hard to sort out an intruder’s hostility to masculinity and manhood from our own feelings. It is precious to raise a son and I’m glad he wrote this piece. It has provoked a lot of thoughtful response. I wonder, as a thought exercise, what about teaching daughters about risk, striving, and persistence? How is is different than with sons? For one, I think that with a son, part of the effort is to protect his budding masculinity. With a daughter I would want to teach her to evaluate and take risk just as I would a son but I’m not sure I’d feel as protective of her right to do so.

      • Anonymous says:

        It’s no different, really. I didn’t raise my daughter different from my boys and I’m pretty much the same. Let them do it on their own if possible. Just be close enough to help if it’s truly needed. She can do everything they can do. All three learned all the domestic chores and how to climb a tree the quickest.

    • I applaud your talking about the need for failure. When I was an O&M Specialist I was constantly having to work with clients that were overly concerned with being a failure. At times when I would start with a blind rehabilitation client they wouldn’t be able to find a bathroom without hurting themselves. When I finished they would be able to live independently and hold a job of some type.

      What is often ignored by pampering parents is that the struggle is an important to having a healthy self-image. It’s not the falling down that’s important it’s the getting back up! As a part of the teachers at the South Carolina School for the Deaf and Blind I often had to deal with smothering parents. These parents think that they are protecting their children but often they can be the worst problem that these young adults face. You see because of a backlog of cases most of my clients were twenty years old. The cutoff for attending the school was 21. So I was trying to get their skills up to speed before their twenty-first birthday!

      One of the real tragedies is that the parents talk about their “good” kids. Sure they are docile and not at all rebellious because they feel so helpless. So I was often confronted by angery parents that wanted my head because I had turned their “good” kid into a normal rebelious young adult. Because they had been delayed in their personality maturation they are more like rebelious teenagers.

      I was always pround of their struggles.

      In normal kids the struggle is a hallmark of the truly creative. Once I was atttacked by another rehab worker that wanted to have me fired. He claimed I was incompetant because I was crazy. So in my defence my boss sent me to a couselor that didn’t a personality test to find out if I had any mental disorders. I was found to be extremely normal with one exception I have a very strong rebelious streak. It’s the reason that I am an artist and blacksmith also. Blazing new paths takes a determination and resolve that overcoming failures strengthens. My design instructor loved my spectacular failures.I didn’t finish the Production Crafts Metal program because it was for jewelers and I have no need for learning to cut stones which was a graduation requirement. The art galleries that sell my stuff don’t care if I don’t have the paper and neither do I.

      Encouraging our children is what can cause them to be another Tesla!

    • while this article may have some themes of mashismo, the article was mainly about letting the child figure out how to get out of a problem that the child creates or encounters. I think it’s a great lesson for the child, I’m sure he can call his dad if he feels he needs to. Even if he did get hurt, that’s another lesson for that child about avoiding dangerous stunts.

    • This is a very important subject to write about. I can’t tell you how often a damn “helicopter parent” has given myself or my husband dirty looks or made rude and obnoxious comments because we let our children experience both success and failure. Well, the last laugh is ours – both kids in college, doing extremely well, and both very thankful they know what to expect in real life.

  14. She would have done the same if you were a mom. People like that don’t care.

  15. As a strongly feminist mom of a 3-year-old boy, with a low tolerance for “manly-man” type role-modelling, I fail to see any machismo in this article. I hope and believe this dad would treat a daughter in the exact same way – let her climb, and fall, and fail until she succeeds. When I was a kid we went to the playground by ourselves, or climbed trees at my grandparents’ farm out of sight of the adults. I find today’s bubble-wrapped parenting ludicrous. Kudos to this guy who encourages his kid to take reasonable risks. His choice is supported by a body of research that suggests that kids who are insulated and discouraged from healthy risk-taking will either become anxious and risk-averse teens, or rebel and take unhealthy risks, depending on their peronality type.

  16. When my kids were playground age I let them fall, tumble and fail. My wife, always the safety conscious of us two, was upset the first few times we playground parented. I assured her that falling was part play and if we sheltered them from everything that could potentially hurt them we would be nervous wrecks and they would never venture farther than the couch. My kids fell and got back up and tried again and usually made it. It taught them a few life lessons such as; failure is okay just pick yourself back up and that there are things you need to be cautious with. My kids are grown and have their own kids and I don’t see any lasting trauma from our playground parenting.

  17. GREAT dad, lucky boy!!
    And just in case anyone isn’t convinced of the value of this kind of parenting.
    I had encounters just like these in playgrounds across America with my physically precocious and very tiny eldest daughter. When she was in 2nd grade, her teacher wanted her to have a tutor every day after school and I refused saying that what she needed after sitting in school all day was the playground and not more school! That teacher tried to intimidate me by saying my seven year old was undisciplined and would never amount to anything! Well, my daughter went on to graduate from college with highest honors and has just received early acceptance to Law School!! Protect their rights to be children and to learn at their own pace and they will thrive!!

  18. Hear, hear! I applaud this approach. As long as you are watching your kid and sensing his risks and not scolding him for fallen down when he falls. Good stuff. I was baby sitting two girls, I was a pretty active kid. I climbed trees and was running around being fearless. So I want to show them this side of me. The 7 year old girl is typically ‘girlies’ and into the girlieness. the older one is 14 and a tom boy, but guess who had the issue with climbing the tree? (ok so maybe it was because she was 14…lol) but I wasn’t bothered about made when I was her age. Anyways, they have a molly coddling parents and when I took them to park when the younger was 5 she fell down and bit her lip. I obviously help her but I didn’t scowl her and now she says ‘whenever I’m with you Natty I like trying new things and I don’t mind if I fall down’. This was said when we went ice skating. I felt quite surprised at that! I hope its a good influence for her.

  19. FWIW, even as a mom who appears traditionally “mom-like” in every way, I still have had the occasional interference from another mom or grandma. Starting from a young age (2 1/2ish) I’ve let my kids make their own decisions about jumping, climbing, running (in the right environments of course). No ER trips or sprained ligaments yet.

  20. I am a mom and I agree with you about letting children fail and stretch themselves- to try risky things. One of my pet hates is the parent who warns “don’t run. You will fall” . Yep the kid might but they will not die and they will learn about their own limitations. Saying it also puts it in the child’s mind and it often happens just because the parent says it. My sons’ have taken risks, learned to assess the risks and make better decisions because of us stepping back and trusting them to learn and to run their own lives. My youngest in particular has a great sense of the value of failure and is not scared at all to try new things because failure is part of learning not an end. If I had daughters I would do the same; support them in stretching and taking risks. I do it with my granddaughter and grandson. That is how kids learn to trust themselves, and to have confidence.

  21. I applaud you for letting your son learn to be his own person, figure his own way, and learn to make decisions. However, not all moms are like that. I am one of those Moms that strongly believe in the same principle you assert with your son. I have a son with cerebral palsy. I can’t tell you how many stares I get on the playground, restaurants, or anywhere I allow my son to try things for himself. Sure my son has a muscle disease. in some ways he will need help, but my biggest fear is him being totally dependent on others. He will never know what he can do until he try. My biggest motto with him, “If you can’t do it one way son, try another.” Now he’s at the point where he doesn’t want any interference. It makes him feel so accomplished. Again, I applaud you Dad.

  22. Gotta learn to fall before you can learn to walk…

  23. I hate these types of comments from “helicopter” parents.
    “Don’t touch that. Don’t do that. Don’t do this. Don’t do etc… Sit down… Stop… Stop…. Stop…….” and the parents just talk and talk and talk and never take junior by the shoulders and make them sit…. or time out or whatever, so the kid keeps on and never stops whatever annoying thing they’re doing.

    Here’s how it goes for me (just an example):
    “Don’t touch that, it’s hot.” – only warning. Kid touches it anyway. Kid cries. “I told you that was hot.” Kid found out for themselves that the parent wasn’t lying and they learned a valuable lesson to listen to what is said. Kids aren’t dumb – sometimes they just need to figure out for themselves what’s right and wrong.

    I hate the stupid “helicopter parenting” crap. And yes, I’m a father of (I think) a very well-adjusted 5 year old (well, she’s almost 5) that knows how to behave properly!

  24. That is pretty much how I parented. My playground rule is “if you get up, you can figure out how to get down”. I will rescue you once. Otherwise, figure it out. I got many horrified looks from moms and dads. The one time (he’s 7 now) my son fell, I was standing within 6 inches of him. Proximity is not going to help. (and I too have visions of all the horrible things that could happen to my kids, and I try really hard not to let my fear infect them.)

  25. Jessica says:

    I got the same thing from other women, my mom, especially! I’m not a helicopter parent. Hovering over kids doesn’t teach them anything. I let my kids do their thing, I let them choose to ask for help should they think that they need it, and I encourage them to try again should things not work out for them. From Art to Zumba dancing, they need to explore their limits and boundaries. They need to fail, and learn from that failure.

    While there might be some gender bias in that particular woman’s reasons for approaching you, I’d say that it’s probably just the same jockeying-for-top-parent-position-on-the-playground routine that lots of people pull.

    You’re doing parenting your way, and your child is thriving. So, rock on.


  1. […] I Let My Son Fall and Fail – “A playground encounter forces a dad to assert his right to parent.” […]

  2. […] of my Facebook peeps posted this last night, and I thought it was great. It gives the first-person accounting of a playground […]

  3. […] is an awesome article on the Good Men Project called “I Let My Son Fall and Fail“.   The author, Aaron Gouveia, talked about his experience at the playground with his son […]

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