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5 Reasons To Let Your Children Experience and Learn From Failure

Updated: Apr 21

You pick your son up after school and as he enters the car, you ask that million dollar question heard around the world after school, “How was your day?” Usually, the response is a one word, “Good.” And then you move on to talk about other things. But today, he goes on to talk about a day in which everything went wrong. He failed his pop quiz. He forgot an assignment. He got in trouble for talking during class. The world is against him.


What is your response? Do you make light of the situation? Do you go on to blame the “system”? Do you ignore it all?


There are many directions this conversation can go. In a much acclaimed 2011 Harvard Business Review article regarding children and failure, the topic came up again – The Trouble with Bright Kids. As parents, we often want to protect our children from experiencing failure or disappointment. We remember how it felt to be ostracized in school or feel sorry for how much a child works often without a direct reward. Our painful experiences often become the reason we step in to “help” with a project or assist our children in difficult situations. However, shielding and protecting our children from feeling or ever experiencing this emotion is setting them up for unrealistic expectations as they venture into adolescence and eventually adulthood.


Building Emotional Intelligence. Women cry almost 300% more than men do in any given year according to German Science of Opthamology And when men actually cry, they are often amazed of their capacity to do so. Emotional intelligence the ability to realize one’s emotions and the emotional responses of others around us. As children, we teach them to only cry when they are physically hurt and that everything else is not worthy of having an emotional response. Experiencing failure gives a child and a parent the opportunity to understand and clarify that things did not work out the way the child expected. Disappointment, regrouping, acceptance, and resilience are active emotions that can only be triggered when they experience failure. Instead of jumping to a solution, talk to your child about how they felt during this time and both of you will learn more about each other.


Value the Power of Collaboration. Sometimes, we go it alone because it’s just easier to not deal with coordinating, communicating and the headaches associated with teams. However, when you fail as a single person, it hits home harder. Most children begin to learn in pre-school the concept of inclusion, but as they get older, they start looking at teams as the “necessary evil” to get things done.


Understand That Fairness is a Perception. Did you blame the “system” in the earlier example? Though you may be right, what are you teaching your child – that systems and processes don’t matter? Fairness is a perception and it is not always black and white so helping children learn from failures includes explaining that sometimes what may seem unfair to them may not really be unfair at all. It is all a matter of perspective. When we as parents project negative perceptions, our young impressionable children learn that the lens in which we judge fairness is small and clear. Instead of marching to their defense, weigh the pros and cons with them of speaking against an injustice or choosing to letting it go. Picking and choosing battles often begins with understanding if there is even a legitimate battle to fight.


Working Smarter,Not Harder. “I put so much time into that and for what?” “Why bother – nothing ever goes my way.” We often pride ourselves on the work ethic and even in books like Malcolm Gladwell’s much acclaimed “Outliers”, we learn about the minimum of 10,000 hours it takes to call ourselves an “expert”. No doubt, success is preceded by hard work. When our children experience failure, the first thing that we may talk about is effort or lack thereof. “You must not have put in enough effort and that’s why you failed.” That is the simple excuse. However, we often don’t look at the quality of the effort. Number of hours that we or our children put into an activity may not necessary translate to success. In the case of a failure, we have the unique opportunity to do a true, no holds-barred “post mortem” of what went wrong, what went right and teach our children how to maximize potential by working smarter – finding the effective strategies for succeeding without constantly burning ourselves out.


Appreciate True Success. We can learn as much from the successes as we can from the failures. When your child succeeds, and they will at something, of course celebrate and praise them. However, take a moment to have them reflect on how they feel when they achieve a goal or succeed at something. That feeling of success is something we often don’t let children pause and remember because we are too busy moving on to the next challenge. Truly feeling sweet success and then working towards that feeling again is a type of motivation that does not include monetary or materialistic reward.


When we allow our children to experience failure, we are ultimately sending the message a clear message to them that learning how to deal with failures is part of growing up. Shielding them from repercussions builds an unrealistic environment that in its own is difficult to sustain as they grow older and are exposed to more outside of the sphere of influences we can control. Establishing a clear set of boundaries and real coping mechanisms allows a child to build resilience that will allow them to “bounce back”. At times, we need to step back and just see where these boundaries will take our children – their future is up to them ultimately.


Author: Tina Shah

Reference: Harvard Business School Publishing

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