Failure - Boon or Burden for Children?
By Dr. Elisa Medhus
Children come into this world unperturbed by their own failures-until they realize
that those blunders will be scrutinized, evaluated, and criticized by others. Why the
about-face? Simple. We're pack animals. And being pack animals, we thirst for a sense
of belonging-thirst that can be quenched in two ways-earning pack acceptance by
offering unique contributions or roles that benefit the pack (self-direction) and
begging for that acceptance, making all choices contingent upon whatever will win the
pack's approval (external direction.) Sadly, most of humanity has chosen this second
path, and for that reason, failure has become a ball and chain around our children's
legs. Over time, our children learn to fear the ridicule or reprimand that comes along
with failure. From this, they begin to resort to outside evaluation as a means of
self-assessment instead of using their mistakes as information that will help them
shape future choices, because after all, how can they trust in an inner choice-making
process that has subjected them to humiliation?
Failure phobia is responsible for today's
commonplace reluctance to make choices. The result-an epidemic of
underachievers (those who choose not to choose, because they are
afraid their choices will result in failure) and perfectionists
(those who choose according to the highest possible social
standards, because they are afraid that making a lesser choice will
make them less acceptable.) People from either group become afraid
to think in fear that the product of their thoughts may produce
failures that weaken their sense of worth. Instead, they rely on
others to do the thinking for them.
As parents, we can raise our children to both welcome and learn from
the mistakes they will surely make during their lives instead of
being shattered by them. We can teach them to use their mistakes to
help them grow instead of allowing those mistakes to generate
external reactions that will make them wither. Only then can they
strive for personal excellence, which, when it boils right down to
it, is what we really want for them.
Here are some suggestions that might help our children develop good
defeat recovery skills through self-direction:
Discuss your own mistakes with your children and
the lessons you learned from each.
Never deny children something they're good at as
a consequence for misbehavior.
Teach children that there is no quota for failed
attempts. There's progress and success to be found in each of
Teach children to strive for personal excellence
rather than perfection. If they learn to assess themselves
objectively rather than through the evaluations and opinions of
others, they'll be able to compete with their own past
performance rather than the performance of others. And they'll
be able to do so according to their own agenda and at their own
Use mistake contests. Ask your children to
record every mistake they've made during the day. During dinner,
each can describe the mistake from which they've learned the
most. The entire family can then decide which one was the best
and why. Because this unmasks the advantages that each failure
offers, children become more accepting of their shortcomings and
Downplay past failures
Teach children to develop "failure
tolerance" by not over-reacting to their mistakes.
Encourage mistakes in children. Doing this helps
them perceive their failures more as positive opportunities to
grow than as something that gnaws away at their self-worth.
They'll learn to stare adversity in the face and think,
"What can this teach me? How can this help me grow?"
Encourage children to do things on their own,
whenever possible. We should not rescue them from their
struggles, settle their conflicts, or shelter them from
challenges. These actions send a message that they can't make
choices or manage tasks without our help.
Teach children to separate their failures from
their self-worth. We can help them see that there's a difference
between failing at a task and failing as a person. Letting them
know how much they should value the fact that they've tried is a
Accept suffering as a good thing. When children
struggle, they develop strength, compassion and soulfulness.
They also learn that there's light at the end of those dark
tunnels-that suffering is something they can overcome.
Once our children use their mistakes and failures as a tool to help
them learn and grow instead of weapons designed to sabotage their
self-worth, imagine the repercussions! They'd be more willing to
take risks. They'd then be able to rack up a solid list of skills
and abilities, making them highly competent. This competence then
leads to a strong sense of independence, which then bolsters their
self-confidence and self-esteem. And what about the benefits for the
rest of the world? Throughout history, risk takers like Thomas
Edison, Henry Ford, Madam Curie, the Wright brothers, and Jonas Salk
have blessed us with much that is wonderful in our world.
Copyright © Dr. Elisa Medhus, mother of five and author of the
provocative new book Raising
Children Who Think for Themselves, has thirteen years of
experience dealing with the biggest problems families face. Her
new book gives parents concrete, common-sense tools for getting
through to their kids, with seven effective strategies for
raising independently-minded children.