We've all heard a lot in the past few years about the importance of failure. Take risks, fail fast, learn from the experience, and bring the knowledge you've gained to the next thing you try. We all know this is good advice--except when it comes to our children. Most parents should get better at encouraging their children to risk failure, and helping them benefit from it when it happens.
Katherine Reynolds Lewis, author of The Good News About Bad Behavior, spent five years researching how kids mess up, and how to help them learn to handle those failures, which ultimately will set them up for success. Here's her advice:
1. Stop worrying that your child's failure reflects badly on you.
If your child messes up on a test or misbehaves around their teachers or peers or grandparents, that doesn't mean you're a bad parent, Lewis says. "We need to let them be imperfect and stop feeling that it's a negative reflection on us." Expecting our children to always behave perfectly to everyone is denying them the right to be human, with human frailties. If we do that, "We're teaching our kids to shove down their emotions," she says.
2. Don't act like everything depends on academic or sports achievements.
We live in a very competitive world, so it's easy for parents to get wrapped up in the question of how their children can get the best grades, best learn a new language or skill, run fastest or have the greatest athletic successes. It's normal to want your child to achieve great things, but it's easy to get carried away.
"Many of us have this dream of a child prodigy," Lewis says. "But we shouldn't make them feel their work is their only important achievement, or that our love is dependent on how well they perform."
3. Encourage them to try things they may fail at.
Childhood should be a time for experimentation, so it's smart to encourage kids to try things they may not be naturally good at. "There's this idea that you should specialize early, that if you're not playing a sport at age eight, you'll never make the varsity team," Lewis says. "Make it OK if they don't make the team--or if they decide to quit."
4. Let them fall down.
Lewis means that literally. "The classic parenting comment when your kids play on the playground is, 'Be careful!'" she notes. "That's not helpful, it just transmits a vague sense of worry and fear." Here's a disturbing statistic Lewis quotes: 32 percent of children will have an anxiety diagnosis by the time they're 18. "You can help them get over that fear by letting them take lots and lots of small risks and having them learn that they can survive a scratch."
5. Ask them about their failures.
Lewis suggests making it a dinnertime tradition to instill the idea that risk-taking and failure are a normal part of your children's development. "Ask: 'What kind of risks did you take today? How did you fail? What did you learn from it?'"
6. Don't jump in to solve problems too quickly.
It can take some self-discipline to say, "What are you forgetting this morning? Have you looked at your list?" as your child heads for the door, rather than "Here--you forgot your lunch." But every time you let a child make a mistake and then find his or her own solution, the more you are setting that child up for success down the road, Lewis says.
The same applies to more serious failures, such as getting a D. A grade like that obviously means something needs to change, but there's a difference between correcting a problem and treating it like a crisis, Lewis says.
"If we take it on as our problem, they'll never take it on as theirs," she continues. "We can save them from getting a D by nagging them to do their homework all the time until they graduate, but then they won't have taken ownership of it."
Don't worry that if you don't treat a bad grade like it's the end of the world, your child won't care about it, she adds. "They're already embarrassed by their teachers' disappointment," Lewis says. "Plus, their peers all know about it, because kids always share their grades. No one wants to get a D."
7. Acknowledge your own failures.
One powerful way to teach kids how to deal with failure is to model that behavior yourself. So if you lose your temper, or forget to sign a school form or pick up something that they needed, acknowledge that you made a mistake, apologize, and do what you can to make amends, Lewis advises. "So often we want kids to be responsible for their actions when we're not willing to do that ourselves," she says.
8. Think 20 years in the future.
"Kids develop at the pace they develop and there's only so much we can do to goose it along," Lewis says. "So accept that it's a very long path and try to parent from a place that's 20 years from now." She asks, in 20 years, will it matter more that your child got an A on a test, or learned the value of hard work? "When you're parenting with that very long-term horizon, you're going to make the right choices."