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can be heard discussing Positive Psychology here.


The Gift of Failure

December 2012

None of us wants to raise fragile, entitled or fearful children. We know in our hearts that children need to be challenged, need to be left to their own devices and need to feel the rush of pride when they find they can manage. Somewhat counter-intuitively, they also need to experience failure. However, sometimes the overwhelming anxiety we feel as we watch our children fail keeps us from being creative and flexible in our responses when they inevitably do. For example, when our son strikes out in a little league game we might yell at him rather than exercising self-control. Or we might get upset over college rejections instead of showing enthusiasm for the acceptances he did receive. Thus we fail to teach children to grow through failure, which is a very important job for parents.

It’s understandable that we may find it difficult to bear quiet witness to our children’s struggles, to hold back and not fill in blanks for them. Here is the dilemma though. By interfering and “protecting” unnecessarily and by being unable to tolerate our children’s mistakes and failures, we rob them of the capacity to develop and fortify the coping skills necessary for navigating their way through life and for understanding their inner selves.

When we are confronted by failure by our children we often have a knee-jerk reaction that causes us to handle the situation the way our parents did with us. Now that’s great if one had enlightened parents who helped us problem solve our way through failure so we could turn it into success and learn as a result. Instead, however, many of us were made to feel bad about ourselves when we failed.

Think about how you felt as a child when you were criticized or demeaned for failing at something. Perhaps a parent called you lazy or stupid for bringing home a disappointing report card, or even bawled you out. In those moments, not only did your parent make you feel bad about yourself, he also didn’t help you develop the resilience you needed to overcome failure in a positive way.

Instead of yielding to those knee jerk reactions that mimic your parents, what can you do to help your child deal with inevitable failures? First, you can help him to appraise his capabilities realistically. Kids who act on faulty self-evaluations are more likely to fail. Next, don’t project your own anxiety as your child moves forward. Remember that part of a sense of growing personal power comes from pushing past boundaries that have already been mastered into less certain territory.

Don’t protect your children from failure. It is both inevitable and desirable, and it is how they learn what works and what doesn’t. Failure helps them sharpen the skills that will be most effective in meeting life’s challenges. Let them know that mistakes, setbacks, and failures are ways to advance knowledge. Most successful people have always experienced more than their share of failure along the way, and your children will, too.

A large part of the job of parenting rests on being able to manage uncomfortable feelings while searching for healthy solutions. Therefore, don’t minimize or be dismissive of your child’s negative feelings regarding failure. Take your child’s concerns over their failures seriously, then offer them ways to handle the inevitable anxieties that result, for example problem solving, combating negative self-talk, or positive affirmations.

Lastly, step back as your child manages new and difficult challenges. But don’t simply hand the reins over to them and disengage. Maintaining a close and supportive relationship keeps him feeling connected, protects him from depression when he does fail, and promotes his sense of self confidence as he moves forward in life.

Johnny Cash said a person should build on failure and uses it as a stepping stone. If we can parent our children in this way, we will prepare them for life’s challenges more than any advanced placement class or prestigious college can. We will prepare them to lead satisfying, meaningful, and authentically successful lives.

Some of this article is based upon the work of Madeline Levine, PhD, author of the excellent book “Teach Your Children Well.” (Harper Collins, 2012) I highly recommend it.


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