Teaching Kids to Fail (and be OK)

So they fell off their bike. They’re screaming, flailing around and it’s the end of the world, right? As a parent, what do you do? You pick them up, dust them off, and get them back on that bike. Seems pretty simple. But things get a little trickier when your kid flunks a class, gets cut from a team or doesn’t get the role of the Good Witch in the most important high school production EVER of the Wizard of Oz. Or is it?

One thing’s for sure. Resilience is an important – if not critical – part of the maturation process.

Here’s a number of proven tactics for helping your child be a winner – even when they lose.

Ways to Help Your Child Deal with Failure

  1. Instill a belief that your child can impact outcome. Studies have shown that when a child believes in their own ability to impact an outcome (“If I study with more purpose, I can impact my grades.”) – they have a healthier attitude about success and failure. When they see and accept the correlation between their efforts and their results, they can accept and learn from the outcome in a more open-minded way.So when your child gets a “D” in math, don’t say, “Oh well, you’re really good at science!” Engage in a conversation about ways they could have changed the outcome such as talking to the teacher earlier or pursue extra-credit. You should also remind them that, in spite of that “D” – they can still master the topics they fell short on.
  2. Instill a realistic acceptance that sometimes they cannot impact outcome. Sometimes – no matter how much a child works at something – the end result isn’t a “win.” Let’s say your child desperately wants a part in their 8th grade play – and they prepare for the audition for weeks – learning songs, perfecting dialogue and mastering a few dance steps. But they don’t get the part because the kid next to them simply had “the look.”These are not the moments to ask your child “What more could you have done?” as it will only deepen their sense of failure. These are the moments to acknowledge their hurt, affirm your pride in how hard they worked, and give them an absolute assurance that they won’t always feel disappointed. The moral to teach our kids: sometimes we don’t win – no matter how hard we try.
  3. Let your child know that they will fail when learning. Back to the bike thing. Sure, some kids take off like a rocket. But most kids struggle to perfect all of the motor skills and balance required to keep those two wheels moving. Going in to that experience (like so many others) you need to make sure your child knows that they will fail in the process of learning! But give them the positive believe that it is only through failing that they will learn something new.This is true for so many parts of childhood – trying a new sport, saying “hi” to a new group of kids on the playground, or learning how to crack an egg. When a child accepts failure as part of the learning process, it decreases the likelihood that they will simply sit on the sidelines of life – fearful of trying new, fun things.
  4. Share your own #Fail stories. My kids LOVE hearing about my biggest fails. My disappointing efforts at sports. My absolute inability to get a word out of my mouth during my freshman speech class. The list is long. And most of them end with at least a reassuring ending that life goes on and that I was OK. Sometimes I learned something from the situation. Sometimes it just created a humorous memory. But more than anything it creates an opportunity for me to create dialogue with myself and my kids about real-life stories of failures.Today’s youth lives in a world of picture-perfect Instagram photos – often depicting a world that isn’t truly very perfect. Give your kids the space to acknowledge their failures and disappointments. They’ll grow if they can do so.
  5. Empathize when your kids hurt. It took me years to learn this – and when I did it was a game-changer. When your child is disappointed (let’s say they didn’t get invited to little Olivia’s birthday party), don’t bombard them with a bunch of questions or suggestions. Show empathy. Acknowledge that you feel their hurt and that you are sorry. Reassure them that you know what that feeling feels like. But also reassure them that the feeling will go away – once they have a chance to process it. Sometimes (not always) that’s what a child wants most from you.
  6. Resist the urge to fix everything. It’s so tempting. Sometimes we know a phone call to another parent or an email to a teacher might help a child experience a different outcome. But you need to resist doing because your child will grow so much more through the experience of disappointment or failure than having you intervene. I learned this when my then ten-year-old didn’t manage his time and found himself trying to finish a geography project into the wee hours of the night. I forced him to go to bed. And I had to force myself to not finish his project. The result? He went in with a project 75% complete. But his teacher made a deal: finish it by the next day and she will only take off 10 points for it being late. The end result was blue ribbon – in more ways than one.
  7. Teach your child self-calming techniques. How do you deal with failures, big or small? Do you go on a run to clear your head? Do you watch a funny movie to help pull you out of the emotional slump? Kids need tools for coping for failure, just like you. For two of my boys, hot showers were my go-to calming technique. It helped bring down the emotional volume and planted their feet on the ground just a little better – stabilizing them to deal with the realities before them. EElizabeth Crary wrote a great book, Dealing with Disappointment: Helping Kids Cope When Things Don’t Go Their Way. I remember her talking about how important it is for every child to have a “go-to” self-calming tool (like hot showers for my boys). Those tools can be anything – from physical activities to meditation or from listening to music to reading. Be sure your child always has their self-calming tool in their back pocket. It just might be their super-power for handing life’s bumps and disappointments for the rest of their life.

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