The Benefits of Failure

The Benefits of Failure

Teaching kids to handle setbacks with grit and perseverance is more valuable than trying to help them avoid ever failing at anything. 

 

Are you raising kids who can cope with setbacks? Does your child respond to obstacles by persevering—or by calling it quits?

Lately, it may seem as if the concepts of grit and failure—specifically, how to have more of the former and deal productively with the latter—are everywhere, making them the buzzy parenting concepts of the moment. It’s hard to escape the headlines and books about the perils of allowing kids to grow up without failing.

But as these ideas have entered the zeitgeist, it’s easy for them to assume a bumper sticker-like simplicity (Failure is great! Go grit!), cautions Richard Rende, Ph.D., and co-author of Raising Can-Do Kids: Giving Kids the Tools to Thrive in a Fast-Changing World.

The reality is a bit more complicated. It’s not that failure is good; there is no need to root for your children to flounder and fail to achieve goals. But failure is inevitable; if you’ve lived, you’ve experienced setbacks and disappointments. That goes for everyone: Even our century’s big success stories, such as J.K. Rowling, Simone Biles, and Steve Jobs, have histories littered with rejection letters, torpedoed projects, bad reviews, and missed medals. And because failure is ever present, it’s important for you child to be able to respond appropriately. “Kids need practice failing so they can learn how to deal with it in both a practical and emotional way, and know how to move on from failures,” says Ami Schwab, Ph.D., who specializes in child psychology and teaches parenting classes. 

Help Kids Focus on Feedback—Not Failure

Carol Dweck, Ph.D., the author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, is known for her groundbreaking research into what she calls “fixed” and “growth” mindsets. In a fixed mindset, abilities and intelligence are set: Tanisha is so smart; Abby has a natural talent for math; Arjun is better at music than writing; Sean is a real artist! In this framework, failure becomes an endpoint. If you see yourself as “good” at math, a poor grade on an algebra test can feel devastating, as though you’ve reached the end of your abilities in math. Or, if you’ve always thought of yourself as “bad at math,” a poor grade acts as reinforcement.

In a growth mindset, on the other hand, abilities are framed as something that can, well, grow—this transforms failure from debilitating to a “what’s next” moment. In this mindset, a poor grade indicates the need to study more or to seek tutoring. To foster a growth concept, align feedback toward effort: Tanisha studied hard for her math test; Connor’s not good at drawing realistic people yet; Abby’s practice before the piano recital paid off—she went from three missed notes last year to just two this year.

Dr. Dweck believes mindset plays a powerful role in relationships, personality, and how a person’s life unfolds. “In one world, failure is about having a setback. Getting a bad grade. Losing a tournament. Getting fired. Getting rejected. It means you’re not smart or talented,” Dr. Dweck writes. “In the other world, failure is about not growing. Not reaching for the things you value. It means you’re not fulfilling your potential. In one world, effort is a bad thing. It, like failure, means you’re not smart or talented. If you were, you wouldn’t need effort. In the other world, effort is what makes you smart or talented.”

Focusing on Your Own Response

Throughout your child’s life, there will be setbacks. Many times, the scale may seem small, especially for young kids—a missed goal; a broken toy; a poor grade in a topic that doesn’t come naturally—but from a developmental perspective, these moments are hugely important. The way you respond to these events, and, in turn, how your child processes them, will play an outsized role in your child’s personality and response to setbacks over a lifetime.

Try these strategies to raise kids who can persevere past obstacles and process failures as feedback (and not dead ends):

Phrase feedback right (and be cautious with your compliments).

Given Dr. Dweck’s research, it’s clear that the way we speak to kids about their successes and failures has a huge impact in whether they view themselves as having core abilities, or whether they’re focused on effort and improvement. “Compliments can be negative for your child’s internal motivation and self-esteem,” says Dr. Schwab, a Bronx resident. Praise feels good, but when it’s for fixed qualities, it doesn’t foster your child’s esteem or sense of worth. Instead of saying, “Good job!” Dr. Schwab advises, ask your child, “Are you proud of yourself?” This allows kids to think through how they feel—proud or determined to do even better next time.

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Resist the temptation to smooth things over. Here’s a classic scene: A wheel has fallen off your child’s small truck, and she is wailing in dismay as a result. For parents, it can be tempting to fix the truck. After all, for us, that’s easy (and stops the tears handily). But doing so might not be doing your child any favors. “Remember who owns the problem, and try to avoid bailing your child out,” Dr. Schwab says. Instead, offer empathy (Isn’t it frustrating that the wheel fell off!) and ask helpful questions geared toward your child’s age and understanding (What do you want to do? How can we fix this? Do you think that wheel can be reattached?) “This strategy gives kids the confidence and ability to fix problems on their own and encourages them to think for themselves,” Dr. Schwab says.

Don’t keep your own failures hidden.

Think about how you share stories of your own life with your children. Do you talk only about your successes? Here, as in every other area of your life, be a role model to your children: Share your triumphs in work and life, but don’t shield your child from the process—the successful meeting that was the result of devoting a full weekend to creating and practicing a presentation, for instance. Share the negative feedback and disappointments as well, along with how you overcame those challenges. 

Encourage kids to be intelligent risk takers.

Dr. Rende recommends parents “let kids do things where they might not be the stars” and encourage kids to take risks. Doing this helps inculcate a growth mindset in your child—and encourages them to not settle for only doing tasks where they’ll perform well. “Failure is an important part of the learning process,” Dr. Schwab says. He recommends parents get in the habit of tacking on the word “yet” to negative statements. If your child is crying that he can’t fix that truck’s wheel, you might subtly inspire him by responding, “You can’t fix that truck’s wheel—yet!” Practice and perseverance alone can’t make a person run as fast as Usain Bolt, Dr. Schwab points out, but that doesn’t mean it won’t lead to improvements. In everyday life—unlike the Olympics—there’s more value to trying and improving than to chasing after the gold medal.

Separate out external markers.

In a child’s world, there are a lot of definitive moments of evaluation: grades, competitions, sports victories, and defeats. Perhaps more than adults, children have to deal with rankings and concrete feedback. Dr. Rende describes all of these evaluations as being a statement in a moment of time, and encourages parents to keep kids focused on the process, instead of the result. “We really want to eliminate the word failure, but we also want to eliminate the word success. It’s best for kids to focus on process and being in control of their learning,” he says. Ask children to think about what they learned from the experience, and encourage them to be open to feedback beyond the grade.

As parents, it can be painful to think of your child experiencing pain, frustration, or failure. But research tells us allowing your child to fail—and then helping them think through how to respond to this setback—allows kids to build the framework they need to learn from the moment, and get insight into how to move on from failure in the future. 
 

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