Many of us have had the experience of watching our child fail at something: a science fair project that gets a poor grade, a failed test, a major sports loss. While it’s painful to see our child fail, they are actually receiving a gift: the opportunity to learn from failure, to try again, and to learn resilience in the face of loss. As Jennifer King Lindley reports in her article, How to Raise a (Successful) Failure (March 2019 REAL SIMPLE), this failure-deprived generation is frequently saved from possible failure by parents who swoop in to bawl out coaches and wheedle teachers for better grades. Avoidance of failure can result even from the parents’ best intentions. She quotes Jessica Lahey, author of the book, The Gift of Failure as saying, “It’s painful to watch your child stumble. You want to show your love by making a problem instantly better.” Hence the so-called “helicopter parents” who swoop in to rescue a child from failure.
But we need to take a longer view, helping our children to grow from life’s setbacks when the risks are small and we’re here to support them. Resilience—not letting setbacks destroy you, learning from them, trying again—is one of life’s necessary and important skills. We don’t rejoice in easy victories, such as the soccer trophy for participation. But the hard-fought victories, where we overcome failure by learning from it, trying again and working harder, are the ones that build our confidence and self-esteem.
Parents who expect perfection, either explicitly or implicitly, or set too-high standards, can also discourage the risk-taking that leads to small failures from which children learn when they are young. My parents set very high standards and I believed—rightly or wrongly—that I had to be “the best” to gain their love. As a result, I avoided trying things at which I felt I couldn’t excel. Not being very athletic, I avoided sports completely until I learned to ski in my thirties. And I think I missed out on some things I would have enjoyed. While over the years I’ve learned that it’s fine to be “good enough,” I’m still very risk-averse.
But, as Lindley says, “You don’t want to just throw your kid to the wolves. (‘Good luck with choosing a college! Bye!’)”. We need to encourage our kids to try new things, to challenge themselves and risk failures from which they can learn, but we also need to serve as consultants, offering advice—but, with older children, only when asked—and emotional support.
See Part 2 to learn three ways to help your children learn from failure.
A graduate of Stanford University, Mary Waldmann and her husband Raymond raised three children who are now independent, well-adjusted and happy young adults. Before becoming a mother, she was a successful real estate broker, political consultant and public relations executive, and worked as a part-time communications consultant when her children were young. Mary is the author of Six-Word Lessons on Winning with Today's Media , Six-Word Lessons for Intentional Parenting, and Six-Word Lessons for Compelling Speeches.
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