How to teach your children to handle failure
How to teach your children to handle failure

I read a blog about a parent who has had to overcome several failures, and how he has managed to maintain cohesiveness in his family. His children are immensely proud of him, and they recount stories of all the times they have had to downgrade their living standards in order to manage with fewer resources, with humour rather than sadness. That blog got me thinking about what our children learn from us regarding failure.

In a previous podcast I spoke about how we often go out of our way to protect our children to the extent that they could grow up having never had to deal with failure. Our generous offers of help can in fact, be dangerous lessons for our children because they learn that it is someone’s else’s responsibility to deal with their failure. When no such person is forthcoming, they are lost and bewildered and will even take extreme measures including ending their own lives.

So, how can you teach your children to handle failure?

As with everything else, modelling is key in helping children learn.  To understand what you are modelling to your children regarding failure, begin with some reflection. What is the last thing you failed at, and how did you handle that failure? What failures did you experience when you were the age of your child today? How did you move on from that failure? What can you share with your child about what you learned from that failure?

Don’t share only stories where you emerged triumphant or successful, or unscathed.  Share also the stories where you messed, lost, got hurt, etc. And to make it even more meaningful, share what you learned from the experience. Such stories help your children to connect with you on a very human level, to appreciate that people do get out of failure, and to understand that failure teaches something useful.

One key strategy to help us handle failure is to separate it from ourselves. Rather than tell ourselves that we are failures when something goes wrong, we should say we failed at that thing. And this applies to what we tell our children. If a child brings home poor grades we can focus on the grades and talk about what could be done to improve, rather than call them names and tell them how stupid they are, and how they will go nowhere in life.

When your child experiences failure, help them to look at it as an opportunity to learn. Ask them what they have learnt, what they might do differently in a similar situation, and how they might prepare differently for such an opportunity.

In a previous podcast I spoke about childhood being apprenticeship for adult hood. Children must grow physically, intellectually, emotionally into adulthood. This, by definition, means that stretching is part of growing up, and activities that stretch their abilities without being completely out of reach are great for showing them what they are capable of if they make that extra effort. So, continue to encourage your child to try new things, to stretch themselves.

There are many stories of people who tried and failed many times before they succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Such stories are powerful for encouraging your child. Still, the most powerful hero or heroine is yourself, and your example of triumph over failure.

But when should you tell such stories?

When your child is experiencing failure, it is a natural time to talk about it, and to share your own stories of failure and learning from failure.  You could also share stories about your experiences with failure when you are experiencing challenges that could end up in failure, especially if your child has noticed that something is going on with you, and more so, if they have expressed concern.  Resist the urge to brush them off with “don’t worry, its not your problem”. If your child has noticed that something is going on that’s making you sad or distracted or otherwise not yourself, then they are involved.  And children do notice, even a toddler can tell when you are not yourself, even if they are not able to say so, they may touch you gently, like you do when they are not well, to express their solidarity with you.

Even if you are not able to share details of whatever is going on, let your child know that yes, there is an issue, and let them know that you are working on it. It is a good time to share with them that you have faced challenges before and you know that one can always come out on the other side, and that you know you will learn something from it.  This provides modelling to your child on being positive in the face of a challenge or failure. It demonstrates that people aren’t always on their A-game, and that its ok. And don’t forget to acknowledge their concern either. Not only does is show them that you appreciate their concern, it also demonstrates to them that it’s okay to accept the concern of others when things are not going well, taking away the pressure to be always ok.

Any discussions about handling failure would be incomplete without a conversation about how to avoid failure when you can. In many situations proper preparations do help reduce the chances of failure, and it is a good thing to include this caveat when you are speaking about failure to your child. It is entirely possible that this is one of the lessons that one will learn from their own failure, but it doesn’t hurt to bring it up as a precautionary measure.