Important lessons to teach our kids about failure

Important lessons to teach our kids about failure

Failure: the very word seems to conjure up negative images of red marks streaked across notebooks, angry red circles staring back at us from report cards and that look of disappointment seen on the faces of teachers and parents when you haven’t performed up to par.

Nobody likes to fail. It’s not the best feeling in the world, to know that your efforts didn’t pay off or that you just weren’t as good as the others who worked alongside you. Whether you’re a child in school facing an exam or a writer trying to get a manuscript accepted, the expectation is that you will taste success.

But, to fail is important. We don’t realise the magnitude of it today, at least our kids don’t, because everything is easily accessible. There are various ways we can help kids handle this stumbling block as well as change certain ways we handle things as parents.

These five important lessons from failure will help your kids today and for life. Click To Tweet

Keep trying

Ever seen a kid try to walk for the first time? He stumbles, picks himself up, hits an obstacle, falls again and repeats the cycle till he gets it right. Most times, it can take days, maybe weeks before he can comfortably waddle across the living room without tripping over something.

What we must encourage, even as they grow older, is the fumbling metaphorical steps they take: towards a task, an assignment or a tough sport. Cheer them on for the fact that they tried. See the difference it makes.

No effort is wasted

Ever noticed that the ones who keep trying are the ones who are more likely to taste success? This is true of kids as well. It can be frustrating to keep working at a Math problem and realise that you’re not getting it right. Chances are the kid’s going to throw the pencil in the air and declare, ‘I hate maths!’ And this isn’t entirely untrue either.

So what matters here is how we, as parents, respond to that frustration. Do you stand with your hands on your hips and say, ‘You’re not trying. That’s it.’ Or do you ask them to change their approach and look at it from another angle? Gently telling them that it’s okay to make mistakes is very important. Perhaps the problem is a complex one or maybe the kid’s distracted.

Either way, yelling won’t help. Learn to help them value the idea of repeated trials. So while they won’t get it right away, it’s necessary they enjoy the process.

Stick to the task at hand

There’s a parable of a man trying to break a large rock by striking at it repeatedly. 20 strikes later, he gets frustrated and walks away. A man who comes along later and swings the hammer at the same rock cracks it open on the first stroke. But the real effort was put in by the first man whose 20 strokes weakened the rock. The second man doesn’t know this so puffs up with pride at his own strength while the first man rues the fact that he gave up due to failure.

Most kids these days fall into the fallacy of the second man’s shoes. They are handicapped by the availability of technology at a very young age. They’ve never had to wait for anything the way we’ve had to. Now that’s a big hurdle for us when we try to tell them that failure is okay.

Chances are it’s going to be met with an eye roll. But, don’t give up. Persevere in letting them know that there is merit in waiting for that 21st stroke which will crack open that rock and reveal the diamond within. This will teach them the importance of hard work. In an age when kids get everything at the swipe of a finger, building this resilience is crucial.

Don’t expect others to fix your failure

I’m a mom and a bit of a Type A personality, so it’s very natural for me to want to fix things, even the seemingly harmless things that my child does.  Grade 1 was particularly an eye-opener in that sense. Almost every second day, she’d realise just as the bus approached our stop that she’d forgotten a sweater or a pencil or her assignment! Cue the anxious mom who’d dash home to get it, panting for dear life and rushing back to get it to the kid before the bus pulled away.

Four years later, I am wiser and have done something very simple: Taught her that consequences exist for our actions. Initially, it was met with a lot of protests and angry tears, but I stood my ground. It helped me teach her that I wouldn’t always be around to fix her mistakes or cover up her forgetting.

It’s worked very well, to be frank. Now she makes a conscious effort to remember things and has worked out a model that will help her remember it too.

Praise the effort, not the result

This is, by far, the best thing you can teach your kids about failure.

It’s the easiest thing in the world to cheer a child who has scored well in an exam. It’s not quite the same for a child who repeatedly finds herself at the bottom of the performance chart. So, what do you do?

Consistently appreciate the effort and encourage self-study. Try and avoid external awards for motivation such as treats and gold stars. These can actually backfire in the long run.

As time goes on, you’ll observe an interesting pattern: The child will start improving because the effort itself makes it worthwhile. Her smile will be wider when she cracks a problem all by herself without your intervention. Her ability to stick with a task improves exponentially over a few months.

None of these things will ensure an academically brilliant kid or a star athlete. And honestly, that’s not the goal here. We’re trying to teach our kids that failure is not only okay; it’s perfect as a bedrock of lessons.

***

As I tucked my daughter into bed tonight, she asked me about an award I’d won yesterday for my work on social media. Looking into my eyes, she asked, ‘Was it easy to win the award, Amma?’

Stroking her forehead and smiling, I replied, ‘Nothing comes easily to anyone. It takes a lot of hard work and consistency. Sometimes, even after all that, we may not win an award. But that doesn’t matter. Do you know what’s important?’

She responded, ‘That we tried very hard and worked for it?’

Beaming, I nodded and kissed her good night.

***

* Recommended Reading: The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey

Featured image courtesy: Math Homework via Shutterstock

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32 thoughts on “Important lessons to teach our kids about failure

  1. She is going to a super smart girl. Loved your approach in strengthening her character from a young age. I specially loved the point on appreciating the effort and not the result. In the long run, that will keep her positive and not let her big down by failures.
    Rajlakshmi recently posted Happiness Is …My Profile

  2. The post is thought provoking. It works as a reminder to me as not to lose the focus from the fact that what is important is the effort that the child puts irrespective of the outcome. I will soon fall into the phase where things, books, lunch boxes etc will be forgotten to be packed in the bag and I might be required to run for them and thus I know what I should do in such a situation. The other day D told me he has race in school and asked me what will I do if he comes last in the race. I told him I will hug him as always and will say “well done for running as fast as you could”. He was surprised thinking I would be angry with him for losing. Thank you Shailaja for writing this post and keeping us in good perspective 🙂

    1. It can be pretty challenging to let go, Anamika, so don’t worry too much if you find yourself doing pretty much all of the things you vow not to do 🙂 But I loved your response to D regarding the race. He’ll treasure that for sure. Thank you so much for reading 🙂

  3. All valuable lessons, Shailaja. Not easy to follow in the times of instant gratification especially as the kids are used to having it easier as you pointed out.

    Like you I believe that one place where most parents fail is in making their kids learn the importance of failure. This will hold them in good stead when they are out on their own in this cold, cruel world. Overprotectiveness can stifle their growth.

    Well-written post as always!

    1. Definitely not easy, Rachna. What with overprotective parents being all around, it’s easy to fall prey to the idea of perfection and build expectations on that basis. It’s necessary to teach them that failure is okay and they should learn from it. Thank you as always, for reading and sharing your thoughts 🙂

  4. I was somewhat like that second person. If something didn’t interest me much I would leave it no matter how much hard work I did invest into that. Now I only invest in things I want and am interested in.
    Sheethal recently posted 2017! Be Mine …My Profile

    1. Most of us fall into the second person’s shoes. Intrinsic motivation comes after a long time and after some heartbreak, I find. That’s a good practice you’ve got: Invest in what interests you. Keeps you content.

  5. Well written and makes so much sense. She is a smart girl too. I think kids need to be receptive to these lessons and she seems to be. Honestly, as parents, we need to remember so many things. I’m worried what I am going to and if I’m going to do it well for M’s benefit. Well, at least, I have your posts to fall back on when in doubt 🙂
    Nabanita Dhar recently posted #IAmAFeminist – The CheckMy Profile

  6. It’s impossible to pinpoint the most powerful lesson from among these Shailaja. It’s not just important for children to learn this, but us adults too. When we learn these lessons as children, we remember them as adults.

    I think to help children learn these lessons, we must imbibe them in ourselves first. What do you think?

    1. I heartily agree. It’s only because I’ve been through failure that I can speak to its benefits. And as with everything, we need to be both ready to change and receptive to change. Without either of those, any lesson falls way short of its target. Learning it young has its benefits, of course. We’re more gentle and capable of absorbing goodness. But, experience and maturity can also help tremendously especially with Life dealing some hard knocks.

  7. Each lesson that you pointed out makes absolute sense and ought to be an essential ingredient in the moral lessons we teach our kids. Failure is indeed the stepping stone to success. Your girl’s response shows that you are moving in the right track in teaching her those lessons 🙂
    MALINY recently posted Author Talk – Sulaiman SaitMy Profile

    1. If teachers could actually encourage kids to try harder instead of just aiming for high marks, think how much better the whole concept of learning would be. Thanks for reading, Maliny 🙂

  8. “Praise the effort, not the result” – You said it, my dear!

    I think it is very important to accept the failures of children and teach them to move on from that. Parents should not reprimand their children when they fail. They need to understand that it is a lesson for the child. As you said they should urge the child to keep trying and never give up.

    But to be honest, looks like a lot of new parents have given up on parenting instead.
    Soumya recently posted The Inner SceneMy Profile

    1. Exactly. How will a kid survive in the real world if they never taste disappointment? It’s a necessary life skill to cultivate, in my opinion. Never give up should be a poster on every kid’s bedroom wall.

  9. It’s true, no toppers or stars are just born. Each of us learns from our mistakes, and I know that the math part is very true. I’ve seen too many people give up entirely on math just because it’s too tough. It helps when one understands that: math isn’t non-solvable. Or else how would we have mobile phones to complain about it! 😀

    I love the way you present these informative posts, Shailaja. I do hope more and more and more parents read it, and pay heed to your words. It will surely help us get smarter smartphones 😀
    Mithila Menezes @fabulus1710 recently posted The Bare NecessitiesMy Profile

    1. You’re so sweet, Mithila. It’s tough, these lessons. We try to ensure the kids get their needs met but it’s important to keep them emotionally stable too. So accurate, your analysis of math. It’s how I felt until a teacher came along who transformed my disinterest to a fascination.

  10. Those are some important lessons, Shailaja. While we are quick to applaud success and quicker to reprimand or discourage failures, we need to remember that the best lifelong lessons come from our failures!

  11. I just couldn’t read this before now, but then it is always like this with your posts, I read them when I really need to read them, and the lessons or reminders they carry.

    So S, had his first taste with failure recently and we had a tough time trying to help him process the failure. But yes, these little lessons will eventually go a long way in shaping him as a person.

    So, I have decided to keep reminding him, and showing him, how hard everyone works, irrespective of the results. What matters is your honesty and commitment towards your task. The results are not in our control anyway.

    PS: Thank You for the timely reminder of how to go about teaching S this. 😀
    Jaibala Rao recently posted The Page TurnedMy Profile

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