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.
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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