Why Failure Maketh A Better Friend Than You Think. (And 3 Ways You Can Help Your Child Learn That)



“You’re a failure.” Those words, uttered shortly after the GCE A-level results were released, hit me squarely in the gut. Whoever said “sticks and stones can break my bones but names will never hurt me” had obviously never done badly in an examination. More than 10 years on, the mental image of that epic scolding is still firmly etched in my memory. In the time since, I’ve failed countless times and am not sorry for any of it. I should probably also add that I’ve thereafter failed my way into Dean’s List positions and a postgraduate scholarship. Past failure certainly isn’t indicative of future performance.

Fear of failure ranks 7th among the top 10 most common fears, just behind fear of death. In a climate that demands all-round excellence, it is not surprising that we’d fear failing almost as much as we fear dying. In the age of Tiger Mothers and Helicopter Parents, we are hard pressed for the space and opportunity to fail, and fail gloriously. Tuition classes (for children and parents), regular emails to the teacher and play-time traded in for study-time are just some in the arsenal of strategies we’ve developed to help our children succeed. But are we really?

Unstructured, explorative play is considered essential to a toddler’s development. Similarly, students require some freedom to explore as they learn to navigate their social and academic environments. Although painful, failure teaches resilience, encourages self-discovery and keeps one humble. By doing too much to reduce the current possibilities for failure, we may ironically risk depriving them of chances to learn skills considered important for future success.

Reflecting on our own experiences would likely produce bountiful examples of failures that led to growth. We may also remember that it was our failures, not our successes that were our best teachers. If we can recognise these in ourselves, what else is keeping us from being facilitators, rather than whip-bearing ringmasters, in helping our children learn from their mistakes?

Some ways to help our children learn from failure:

  • Listen

This is probably the hardest to carry out, but the most important step. Resist the urge to scold or berate, at least until the entire situation has been understood. Ensure that you and your child are calm; otherwise take time to calm down before speaking.

Physically place yourself at eye level with your child to prevent talking-down to her. Use open ended questions to help your child verbalise her feelings and thoughts about her failure (e.g. How do you feel about your performance? Why do you think you feel this way? What was your preparation process like? Where do you think you went wrong? What do you think you can do better in future?).

As she talks, pay attention to what she is saying and allow her to finish speaking before interjecting. Encourage her by maintaining good eye contact and nodding. It is often helpful to summarise what she has said at intervals, to ensure that you’ve understood her accurately. (e.g. “It sounds like you’re angry at yourself for not finishing the test paper in time. Am I right?”)

Talking about it helps your child to process and draw lessons from her experience. Listening for how she feels and her perceptions of her performance will allow you to gently correct any misconceptions she may have and construct a plan with her later.

  • Praise The Effort, Not The Result

Your child may have worked extremely hard but failed to perform well. Praising her effort would encourage her to continue working hard. It also teaches her to see the value in the process of working toward a desired goal. Conversely, praising a good result but neglecting to affirm good effort sends the message that the goal matters more than the process itself. A child may choose to give up and stop trying should she feel that she is unable to reach the goal.

Carol Dweck, a researcher at Stanford, found that children praised for their intelligence and good results were more likely to opt for easier tasks and lose confidence when they encountered difficulty. On the other hand, children praised for their efforts were more likely to choose more challenging tasks and persist in the face of challenges.

A statement such as “I’m proud of how much effort you put into preparing for this test, keep working hard!” would adequately convey your appreciation of her efforts.

  • Make a Plan, Together

Devise a concrete plan with your child. A plan should include an achievable goal, specific steps to obtain her goal and an agreed-upon reward for reaching the goal. Avoid setting your child up for failure by deciding on a realistic goal that she is likely to achieve within the time frame discussed. SMART goals are a useful guideline to follow: Good goals are Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-bound (completed within a specific time frame).

Put the plan in writing. You could even sign the agreement with your child and display it in a prominent place in the home. Allow yourselves to get creative when discussing rewards. Good rewards need not be expensive, or even cost any money. A promise to cook her favourite meal or allowing her to choose the venue for the next family outing can be a simple but satisfying reward.

At any age, failure on any level will most certainly be painful, for a time at least. Thomas Edison, an inventor, famously said, “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10, 000 ways that won’t work”. It was his dogged determination that eventually gave birth to the indispensable light bulb. Our children may not grow up to be the next Thomas Edison, but with these pointers, we can certainly encourage them to adopt his determination and positivity in chasing their own dreams.