When my three year old starts trying to do something and doesn’t get it right the first time, my gut instinct is to jump in and “save” him. As a mother, I don’t want my child to experience even a small failure; I want to protect him from that. But as an educator, I know that it’s actually best for me to encourage my child, but let him try it again.
Failure is a part of life for all of us. We do our children a favor by teaching them how to fail, gracefully, from a young age. This doesn’t mean encouraging them to accept failure easily, but to know how to handle failure when it comes.
There are several different ways a child could naturally view failure:
1. The perfectionist/overachiever. This child puts in an incredible amount of effort and usually does things very well, in order to avoid failure. Sounds good? Sometimes. But this child has to be helped in two ways:
- Doing things well motivated by fear of failure leads to a great amount of stress. Encourage your child to keep doing things well, but not to place undue stress on themselves.
- Encourage them to take risks. Children that are perfectionists tend to shy away from risks because the unknown could mean failure, and they don’t want to risk that. These children are usually very capable, but their fear of failure can too easily hold them back from discovering their own abilities.
2. Minimalists. Unlike the perfectionists, who put forth maximum effort to avoid failure, minimalists still want to avoid failure, but with as little effort as possible.
3. The Resigned. Some children are resigned to failure. This approach to failure is usually developed over time, rather than an inherent trait, although certain personalities due fall into this frame of mind more easily than others. Children that are resigned in this way expect themselves to fail. This usually occurs either when the child has experienced failure after failure with very few experiences of success, or when the child has been habitually put down, and therefore feels incapable of succeeding because of how others perceive him.
4. The Risk-Taker. For lack of a better term, this refers to the child who enjoys learning and doing for its own sake. They strive for success, but aren’t obsessed with it. They don’t want to fail, but aren’t afraid of some failures along the way. They’re willing to take risks. Even these children, however, still naturally get upset over failure. No child knows, on their own, how to fully handle the difficult experience of unwanted failure.
Our goal as parents is to help our kids join that fourth category by teaching them that it’s OK to fail sometimes, and to help ALL our kids, even those that are natural risk takers, learn how to fail gracefully, without getting too upset and caught up in the failure. Here are 16 ways you can help.
1. Help your child put their mistakes into perspective. Don’t pretend they don’t exist, but don’t give them more importance than necessary. What is the long term affect of the mistake? Usually, if it’s the first time your child has made the mistake (for example, failing a test or getting into a fight with a friend), they can remedy it (apologize to their friend, do better on the next test or retake), before there are long term consequences.
2. What can you learn from it? Teach your child to always ask themselves this question. There is no problem with a failure as long as they LEARN from it. The benefit of what they learn usually outdoes the failure itself.
3. Don’t cry over spilled milk; clean it up. Help your child come up with solutions when they fail or make a mistake. Problem solving and moving on is more important than getting caught up in the mistake. If your kids learn to approach their mistakes in a matter-of-fact way, focused on fixing them, instead of personalizing them on them emotional level, it will be much easier for them to face and overcome failures throughout their life.
4. Make sure your child knows that you don’t expect them to be perfect. You DO expect them to do their best. A child naturally wants to please their parents as much as possible. If they think they need to be perfect to please you, they’re facing an impossible task from the outset, and will ultimately view themselves as a huge failure simply because they aren’t perfect. On the other hand, knowing that doing their best IS what pleases their parents, they will develop a healthy self-confidence and will themselves be satisfied with their best.
5. Teach your child that it’s better to try and fail than not to try at all. If you don’t try, there’s no chance whatsoever of succeeding; if you try, there’s a strong chance, even if the outcome isn’t exactly what you expected. “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” (Origin unknown, attributed to Oscar Wilde, among others)
6. Show your child that making mistakes is a normal part of growth and learning. We can’t discover new things without taking risks, and we can’t take risks without accepting that we’ll sometimes fail. You could read Bible stories showing how people made mistakes, but got up again and kept going, or take examples from history or from your own life.
8. Keep pointing out your child’s strengths; help them grow in self-confidence. Having a balanced knowledge of both their strengths and weaknesses will help them maintain their self-esteem, even when they fail.
9. Talk through your own mistakes with your kids. Sometimes we make the mistake of trying to appear perfect in front of our children and hide our failures from them. This is actually counterproductive. Since they’re learning from us, if we pretend to be perfect, they feel pressured to do the same and then get discouraged when they fail to be perfect. If we are willing to acknowledge or even sometimes point out our failures and talk them through with our kids, sharing with them what we’re thinking and feeling, they will learn how to handle their own failures through our example.
10. Teach your children to apologize. It isn’t wrong to fail; but it might be necessary to apologize for our failures, if they involve other people. Begin, as always, by setting the example. Let them see you apologizing to others, and talk to them about why. Don’t be afraid to apologize to your own children too, if you lose patience or set a bad example in front of them. Sometimes we can be afraid that if we apologize to them, we’ll lose their respect, but the opposite is actually the case. If we apologize to them when we wrong them in some way, they will see that we are consistent with our own expectations.
11. Teach your child to be realistic. Always encourage them to try new things and stretch themselves, but to maintain realistic expectations. If they expect too much from themselves, they’re bound to be disappointed; if they stay realistic, they’re likely to be at least satisfied, and possibly happily surprised. Another aspect of being realistic is only to jump into something when you have a path forward. Sure, go for the big dreams, but make sure you have a set of steps to follow that might actually get you there.
12. Give your child lots of positive praise… for their effort. Regularly praise your child for the effort they put into a task more than the outcome. This encourages them to keep going without getting discouraged over mistakes, and helps them develop a growth mindset (read to learn more about the growth mindset).
13. Allow your child to be in challenging situations that they might “fail” at. Encourage them to do things that are a little above their ability level, but not unreachable. Don’t jump in to rescue your child; let them do their best and, if they fail the first time, try again. This helps them learn that it’s OK to make a mistake, teachings them to always keep trying, and helps them master new skills.
14. Teach the word “no” to your child from a young age. They can’t always have what they want. Failure is just that – an experience of not achieving or receiving something they wanted. If they have already experienced being told “no” in a variety of situations, and have come to accept it as a normal part of life, failure will be easier to handle.
15. When your child has failed at something, talk to them about it. Encourage them to communicate with you, sharing what they are thinking and feeling. This gives you the opportunity to guide them through the experience, helping them handle their thoughts and emotions in effective ways, without getting discouraged.
16. Make sure your child feels loved unconditionally. If a child believes that your love is contingent upon their success, failures become devastating. Show him that you are proud when he succeeds, but love him just as much when he fails.