Children and Failure: Risk or Benefit?

A friend of mine recently posted a comment on Facebook: does she risk harming her child’s self esteem if she allows her to fail at something?  This is a common concern for parents.  What is the balance between being protective and encouraging autonomy?  This is a complicated issue with no one right answer.  I will, however, offer my perspective.

Avoiding Failure

In society we are taught to believe that failure is undesirable, something to be avoided.  We strive instead to win.  School achievement is marked and graded, competition in sport is valued, and we compare ourselves with others, seeking to be “the best.”  For example, women may talk about the fantasy of “having it all”: being the best mother and wife, having a fulfilling career, perfectly clean house, ideal body and enduring patience.

When we fail at something, we don’t like the feelings that arise, emotions such as disappointment, guilt and, in some cases, shame.  Our impetus is to avoid these unpleasant feelings and to seek out feel-good emotions that affirm our sense of self.  Achievement, mastery, winning, all fit into this scheme.

Failure is Underrated

But wait…Could failure be a good thing?  On the surface this appears preposterous.  Why would experiencing failure and its uncomfortable feelings be helpful?  Consider the following:

  • When we allow ourselves to experience any emotion we have the opportunity to befriend it. Emotions, including the ones we associate with failure, lose their grip on us when we accept them, when we let them come and go without becoming overly involved with them or, alternatively, shunning them.  We can let go of the ideas of “good emotions” and “bad emotions” and recognize that all are acceptable.  As the late child psychologist Haim Ginot was fond of saying, “emotions do not vanish by being banished.”
  • We deprive ourselves of the opportunity to work through feelings when we avoid them. When we are able to fully experience feelings without clinging to them or pushing them away, we learn that we have the capacity to deal with them.  This builds self-worth, resiliency and confidence.
  • Failure helps us to appreciate success. We are better able to recognize and take ownership for our efforts and accomplishments when we’ve also had the opportunity to fail.
  • Your version of failure may not match your child’s. Similarly, adult and child expectations may not jive. You may assume that your child is feeling disappointed with his or her efforts, but this may not be the case.  My preschooler, using a table knife, cut up fruit to make a fruit salad.  Aesthetically, the salad was chopped in a primitive, rudimentary way, but to my child, it was perfect and she had done it herself!
  • Failure can help to eliminate power struggles between parent and child. When we say to children “you’re not ready to do that!” sometimes the response is, “yes I am!”  Barring safety considerations, we can take a step back and let them try for themselves.  If the granola bar your 18 month-old wants to unwrap for himself just won’t come off through his efforts, and if he wants it badly enough, chances are he’ll ask for help without you needing to say anything.
  • Whose issue is it anyway? There are times when letting your child work things out seems, as a parent, unbearably painful.  Sometimes an honest look at past experiences which may be driving these feelings can be helpful.  For some parents, situations their child struggles with are reminiscent of their own painful childhood experiences.  If the issue seems personal, it can be helpful to talk to a trusted friend, partner, or counselling professional.  Clarifying and working through past issues can also help eliminate “blind spots” in parenting.

Self-Esteem

I’ve alluded to my view, above, that self-esteem can actually thrive when we work through feelings of failure.  As parents, what can we also do to help our children?

  • Step Back. Again, barring safety considerations, we can hold back so our children can learn for themselves.  When they’ve accomplished something they’re proud of, they own it.
  • Accept their feelings and listen empathetically.  Children sometimes associate bad feelings with being a bad person.  Show them that experiencing a feeling is never wrong.  It is not the same as acting on a feeling, which obviously, in some cases, can have negative consequences.
  • Recognize effort not results. It’s more engaging for a child to hear: “You chose a steely blue for the colour of your umbrellas in the picture and the way you drew those clouds really stands out!” vs. “What a great drawing!”  Through this we can promote the idea that life is about the journey, not the goal.
  • Avoid global praise of your child’s character. Saying “good girl” tells a child very little about herself and gives the illusion that you are an authority figure that is in the position to judge or determine her worth as a person.
  • Choose descriptive praise. Praising a child’s qualities can backfire if these qualities somehow change.  If Melissa is a talented figure skater who is praised repeatedly for her athleticism, but later decides she no longer likes figure skating and wants to quit, or, gets injured and cannot skate, she may doubt her self-worth.  “If I can’t skate, what am I?” “If I don’t want to do this any more, what does this say about me?”  When a parent chooses to use descriptive praise, it is the child who ultimately evaluates his or her efforts.

    For example:
    Parent says: “Wow!  You landed that flip for the first time!”
    Child interprets: “Yes—my skating skills are really improving!”

Final Thoughts

As parents, we often put incredible pressure on ourselves to raise our children so that they “turn out right.”  Children’s formative years are incredibly important and parents feel more responsible than ever before.  At times, more is better and necessary, and yet, when the question arises about how much to step in, sometimes the answer is less.