Failure is A-Okay
By Dr. Luisa on March 18, 2013
NBC TODAY Moms recently posted a video and related article by Amy McCready, titled The bright side of blunders: Why we should let kids fail. I found this article chalk-full of good advice on the positive lessons of failure. Like most good advice, however, it’s easier to read about than to actually execute, so I’d like to offer a few extra tidbits on how to make it easier to allow your kids to fail.
The bright side of blunders: Why we should let kids fail explains if we swoop in and rescue our children at the first sign of a mistake, they’ll never develop the problem solving skills, resilience, or the confidence needed to practice taking risks. In a nutshell, the article and video discuss how if we teach kids that failing should be avoided at all costs, we are “sacrificing long-term lessons for short-term achievements.” Kids will then learn that “things always work out because my mom (or dad) will take care of it,” which will later make it more likely they’ll avoid tasks that are too difficult to accomplish on their own.
Often times for parents, the most difficult part of watching your kids fail is experiencing and tolerating their negative emotions. As a parent, it’s instinctual to want to swoop in and rescue your child from having to experience any amount of disappointment, shame, or sadness. If we do swoop in, our kids not only learn that failure is unacceptable, but also that experiencing negative emotion is unacceptable and should be avoided at all costs. Kids who grow up with this perception of negative emotion are more likely to have difficulty regulating their emotions as they enter into adolescence and adulthood. They’re also at risk for developing impulsive behavior (stealing, drug use, self-injury, and sexual promiscuity) in order to cope.
The bright side of blunders: Why we should let kids fail offers the following four strategies to teach your kids about the value of making mistakes. I've added a few of my own thoughts and intertwined the concept of validating your children’s emotions (validating = verbalizing your child’s feelings are real, valid, and make sense) throughout each strategy:
- Be a refuge for risks. McCready suggests families incorporate risk taking and acceptance of mistakes into their core values. I would add that parents need to model making mistakes for their children. As a parent, when you make a mistake, verbally acknowledge it and talk about how you’re going to do things differently next time. Talk about how you feel disappointed you didn't do what you set out to do, and validate that feeling disappointed is okay because you feel even more motivated to try again. Kids learn from adults, and they’re smart enough to know that no one is perfect, so don’t try to be.
- Make room for mistakes. McCready states failure should be the norm when trying something new. I agree and caution parents to be extra mindful so as not to discount your child’s efforts. When talking to your child, this is easily accomplished by substituting the word “and” in place of the word “but.” For example, let’s say your daughter is learning to swim. She takes a few strokes across the pool for the first time by herself, but you notice she forgets to kick her feet. Instead of saying “Wow, honey! That was great, but you didn't kick your feet,” say, “Wow honey! That was great AND next time we can work on kicking your feet too.” By saying this, you are validating her effort while at the same time acknowledging room for improvement.
- Highlight the lows. McCready advises to familiarize your kids with the failures of famous people who are now very successful (for example, Oprah or Michael Jordan). Kids relate well to what is personally relevant, so I would also remind your child of his or her own past failures and successes. For example, share with your son the story of how he learned to walk. Remind him he didn’t just start walking one day, but first crawled, then scooted, then stood, etc. Remind him he fell down many, many times before accomplishing the task of walking. Validate the process of success and stress that this process includes failures along the way.
- Discuss “do-overs.” McCready says to empathize with your kids when they fail, but don’t rescue them. Help your kids talk through their mistakes so they have a plan for a more successful outcome next time. I also suggest modeling your own emotional experience (e.g. “Yeah, I get that you feel sad [validation]. I feel sad too when I’ve tried really hard before and it didn’t work out.”). When you talk through mistake, make sure to keep the responsibility on your kiddo by saying “What do you think you’ll do different next time?” instead of “Next time, I would….” You want your kiddo to maintain responsibility in order to continue to solve the problem independently and take credit for the success in the future.
McCready concludes the article by saying we all want the best for our children, and at the same time, we can’t protect them forever. This is certainly true because at some point kids must learn to protect themselves, and eventually to protect their own children.
So until next time, I leave you with the wise words of Benjamin Franklin: “Do not fear mistakes. You will know failure. Continue to reach out.”
Licensed Clinical Psychologist