The Importance Of Failing
It’s tempting for a parent to want to spare one’s kids the pain of failure. No one likes to see someone that they care about – and that they’ve been charged with protecting – in pain. Some parents will go a pretty far distance to make sure that their kids don’t ever fail, lose, or come up short.
But is it really in the best interest of the kids?
The self-esteem movement in parenting, that took hold in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, has hammered home the point that kids need to not see themselves as lacking, in order to ensure future success. The problem is, sometimes our kids will be lacking. So how are we preparing them for life if we don’t give them an opportunity to understand that?
The world is hard, some might argue. We need to be a comforting force in their lives, not a cog in the machinery that grinds down their spirits. I agree. But that doesn’t mean that inflating our kids’ perceptions of their abilities is a logical response. A teacher or professor, and later a boss, won’t necessarily worry too much about tailoring feedback to best suit our kids. So if we structure school, sports, and other activities to be an “everyone wins” situation, kids not only develop an exaggerated sense of their own abilities, but they also never experience criticism. And how are we preparing our kids for “the real world” if they don’t experience criticism? There isn’t an “everyone wins” approach to job applications or scholarships, and if we want our kids to improve in anything they’re doing, they need to be able to receive accurate, critical (although, let’s hope, not unkind) feedback that will allow them to refine and perfect their skills.
The ability to deal with failure or adversity of any kind, is an important skill to have. We can’t develop resiliency, or the ability to get back on our feet after a setback, if we never have the opportunity to practice getting up. Teaching our kids that mistakes are learning opportunities is an important distinction.
Kids, and adults, too, don’t generally want to settle for mediocrity. We want to be the best, or at least good enough to avoid embarrassment, at whatever we try. Of course, it isn’t possible to be the best at everything, so we need evaluation to help us improve. Can this evaluation process be painful? Absolutely. But shielding our kids from pain and evaluation at every possible turn suggests the world is a different place than it is, and leaves them unprepared.
For sound psychological health, the best balance is one that emphasizes both cooperation and competition. Not all activities should be about winning or losing; learning how to be a part of a team and work together is another critical skill that, as parents, we need to foster.
It’s also important to remind kids that there’s a difference between the act of failing and who they are as people. “Separate the deed from the do-er” parent educators might say; the same holds true for children when they’re thinking about their latest unsuccessful effort. Failing at something is not the same thing as being a failure. Sometimes this is a hard lesson for certain kids to accept. The perfectionists and more sensitive among us can have a hard time not seeing themselves reflected in their failures, so the key for parents is to emphasize effort and learning as the areas of focus, and to aim for improvement, not perfection.
It’s also critical for parents to not say one thing (“It’s not who wins or loses, it’s how you play and how much fun you have”) but do another (yelling at the ref, yelling at the kids, asking what happened to the other 3% on a test of 97%, complaining about poor training or unfair teams). We need to walk the talk and demonstrate that winning really isn’t what we’re most concerned about. By modelling healthy reactions to losing and encouraging our kids to reflect on their performance to acknowledge what they’re proud of and how they can improve next time, we teach them that being on the losing team two – or ten – years in a row isn’t what really matters. What matters is that each season, the team is getting better and better, and they’re having fun doing it.
Ironically, protecting our kids from the “pain” of losing now, we may be setting them up for even greater pain later. Our role is to get them ready for adulthood and the challenges they’ll face, not structuring their lives so that they never need to cope with adversity. Trying even when success is not guaranteed and learning from our mistakes are crucial skills to have. Developing “the courage to be imperfect” is one of the most valuable gifts we can give our kids.