Do children gain anything useful from failing?

May 24, 2016

Do children gain anything useful from failure?
We would all agree that encouraging and praising our children is a critical part of parenting. We know it contributes to them feeling good about themselves and it gives them confidence. So far so good, but how do we think about their failures and the whole issue of failing.

This is a more complicated subject than it seems. It is in our DNA as parents to protect our children from psychological pain and failing most definitely hurts, therefore we naturally want to protect them. It is widely acknowledged we know too much failure seriously damages a child’s confidence and self worth and good parenting prevents this from happening but we also know that life is full of failures, big and small.

So what do we do? Does this mean we as parents adopt the Darwinian approach of sink or swim or is it more nuanced ? Or is it important to ask a different question- what kind of life would your child live if they were frightened of failing?

The answer would surely be a sort of ‘half life’. Opportunities would be ignored, challenges avoided. I have seen many children in my practice over the years who have lived their lives in fear of failing. They are often conservative, highly anxious, unwilling to explore new experiences and frustrated. Their sense of self worth is fragile and it is clear they have very little psychological resilience. One worries about how as adults they might tackle a relatively big failure like a broken relationship or a work rejection.

How does this look in a more practical sense? One way we can monitor our children’s relationship to failure is to monitor their attitude to challenges. Are they able to take them head on or do they do their level best to avoid them. Do they put their best effort into them or do they make excuses?

One of the stories I hear in the consulting room is that Charlie is shy and rather introverted and doesn’t join in much. Setting aside issues about shyness and introversion, not joining in is a familiar strategy for those children who are trying to avoid failure. If you try out for a big part in the school play and you don’t get selected it hurts and likewise if you try out for a school team and don’t get picked. It is worth thinking more deeply about whether your child truly doesn’t like an activity or is anxious about failing.

Another way in which fear of failing expresses itself is in relation to academic work. I often hear that so and so is a lazy child. But what if I suggested that ‘not trying’ has a very important psychological pay off and that is the child avoids having to feel the ‘pain’ of trying hard and not succeeding. In other words ‘not trying’ is the buffer that protects them from the experience of failing. In situations such as these I suggest that parents focus their energy on their child’s effort and not their achievement.

Another familiar scenario is the child who is super competitive and finds losing too painful. They have to be the best or nothing. For these children succeeding and failing are inextricably linked with self worth. Succeeding makes them feel triumphant, and failing makes them feel worthless. It is no wonder they want to opt out.

Whatever it is don’t ignore it. It is often easier for them to manage these feelings at home than in the harsher environment of school.   Promote games, help them to start a hobby like playing a musical instrument-focus your energy on your child’s effort not on their achievement. You can help them negotiate their fear of failing.

If we widen our parenting brief a little to include teaching them to deal with life then it becomes self evident that we have to help them learn to deal with failure and not try to shape the world so they never experience it. However charmed a life they might lead at some point they will have to deal with failing and if they don’t have the psychological resilience to deal with it then problems may arise.

So in answer to the original question yes failing does matter. The ability to be able to withstand and manage failing builds character and resilience protecting them from low self esteem, psychological fragility and an enduring sense that life isn’t fair


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