In Defense of Failure
Empower Your Kids—Let Them Fail Early and Often
Take a moment and envision what you want for your child as they enter young adulthood. What skills do you want them to be armed with as they enter the scary “real world”? What values and priorities should guide their adult decisions? What strategies do we hope they employ when the “going gets tough”?
I have done this exercise with countless parents. Without exception, parents describe wide-ranging skill sets that boil down to a hope that their kids experience genuine happiness as adults, develop self-sufficiency, resiliency and compassion. Simply put, parents want to see their children grow up to be kind and successful adults. One of the most important experiences in this process is to learn how to deal with failure. Evidence shows that an inability to tolerate failure leaves young adults susceptible to anxiety and hinders their willingness to explore new challenges, thereby limiting their potential.
With this end goal in mind, it is worthwhile to work backwards and explore what things we can do as parents and teachers to foster this kind of growth at a young age. While oversimplified, we should begin with the fundamental belief in the importance of failure as a necessary part of growing up and the virtue of natural consequences.
Embracing Failure—It Starts with Adults
Our kids will look to caregivers and teachers for guidance on how to handle failure and adversity. The sooner they learn that failure is a learning and growth opportunity, the better. This is not a lesson that can be explicitly taught. Rather, adults must work to foster environments in which failure is okay, viewed without judgment, and even embraced. To do so, adults must manage their response to failure appropriately. In doing so, we send our young and impressionable children implicit lessons on the correct way to behave in the face of disappointment. Additionally, we can demonstrate flexible thinking and proactive planning to move forward with our ambitions despite obstacles. In many ways, the challenge in developing resilient children lies in our own response to failure. We must model what we hope our children will someday emulate. Do not hesitate to speak openly about your own failures as an adult. It's okay for your child to know that things in your own life didn't go how you had hoped and planned. Seize the opportunity to share your own ways of processing and learning from failure aloud. Knowing that their role models must work to embrace failure and learn from it is invaluable. Too often, children assume that all adults have it "figured out" and they believe that the grown ups in their life can't possible understand their experiences and feelings. Empathize with your child’s feelings and express compassion.
Start Embracing Failure Early in Childhood
A failure through the lens of a young child is often inconsequential in the scheme of their young life. A 4-year-old’s failure may be as simple as a unicorn drawing that comes up short of their expectation. The disappointment the child feels when their final piece of artwork comes nowhere near ressembling the unicorn in their picture book is a golden learning opportunity. Embrace this moment! Validate and give words to the child’s feelings. Verbalize that it is disappointing to expend a lot of effort on something that misses the mark. It is normal for anger and frustration to accompany failure. Allow kids to feel these associated emotions without judgment. Having the emotional intelligence and ability to verbalize them will pay off in the future. Once the emotions have run their course, process through next steps. In approaching disappointment as a learning experience, adults will accomplish several things at once:
Our child’s feelings are validated
We have increased and added to their emotional intelligence
We have given them valuable experience in learning from our mistakes and disappointments
When the failures in life become more consequential, our children will have these early lessons to draw strength from.
Getting cut from a sports team, failing a midterm, the end of a romantic relationship, and rejection from a college are all common “failures” that young adults experience. Why not arm young kids with the skills to cope early on?
Failure in School—Focus on the Process
Teachers and parents can work together toward a mentality in learners that focuses on the learning process instead of the end result (grade/points). “Growth mindset” is a term often associated with this line of thinking, and current literature is rife with “growth mindset” and “grit.” The starting point is a change in our language used with kids. Place your emphasis on effort and process instead of grades. Praise the energy put into the pursuit of learning, and our children will subconsciously begin to embrace the notion that learning is ongoing and continual.
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