Why children should fail


My son was trying to draw a dragon and failed – in his own estimation – at rendering it exactly right.

His uncle came into the kitchen as he balled up his drawing and threw it across the table, flung his pencil down and swept his seat aside in a gesture of self-disgust.

“What’s going on?”
“I can’t draw,” he grumbled.
“Let’s see,” said his uncle, unballing the rejected picture.
“Oh, yes, I see what you mean... the wings aren’t quite right.”
“I know. This one looks like it’s bigger than that one.”
“Why don’t you rub it out and fix it?”
“Because I’m sick of it. I can’t draw.”

Both of them can draw, which is why the uncle was entitled to his observation about the wings. I was grateful to him for not patronising my exacting son about his drawing. And then I was even more grateful when he told my son the “Post-It note story”.

It goes like this: two scientists developed a special, not-very-sticky glue and tried for several years to get the stationery company they worked for to use their invention in some clever way. Only 9 years later did someone start taking the idea seriously and only 12 years later were Post-It notes distributed nationally in the USA. Now there is hardly a modern house or office in the world that doesn’t have sticky notes marking pages, flapping on fridge doors or curling from computer screens.

“And if they hadn’t been so persistent, we wouldn’t have sticky notes,” said the uncle to my son. “So just try and draw the wings again. That’s what erasers are for.” My son kept trying and eventually got the wings right.

When babies, toddlers and children “fail”

No baby has ever got up on her legs and walked easily across the room the first time. They buckle at the knees, tumble, roll and smash their noses into linoleum. Is this failure?

Yet, when everyone’s baby is toddling about by the age of 1 and your 15-month-old is still scooting around on her nappied bottom, is that failure? Or if she can’t speak clearly by the time she’s 2½, or if she isn’t fully potty trained by the age of 3, or doesn’t sleep through the night when she’s 3 months old?

How we define “failure”

Child psychologist Rob Sandenbergh says development in the first 5 years of a child’s life is too variable for the etiquette “failure” to be used.

“If someone sees a little child as having ‘failed’ at something it probably says more about the adult’s expectation of the child than about the child’s abilities. A child of that age would not have that conception of herself when something goes wrong.”

At some point, however, children become aware of themselves, of their own goals – like building the highest tower of blocks, of being friends with the popular girl with the long, black hair – and when these attempts are thwarted by circumstance, miscalculation, overly enthusiastic ambitions or expectations of themselves beyond their own means, then the idea that they are “not good enough” can start to take hold.

Author and teaching expert Martie Pieterse says in her book Ready for Big School that no-one likes failure and children are particularly sensitive when they cannot get something right.

“Success and failure contribute to the emotional growth and development of a child. A parent shares her child’s failures, but it is essential that parents remain positive and help their child to regain self-confidence. Most children react negatively to failure; this is normal. However, when a child develops a fear of failure, it can lead to other emotional problems.”

Some of these include an avoidance of new tasks or challenges, which means fewer opportunities for learning, development and pleasure, as well as self-criticism, anxiety, loss of pleasure from play and the erosion of self-confidence.

When you make mistakes

Your attitude towards your own mistakes is, according to experts, the best place to begin investigating your ability to help your children weather their own.

This means that when you make a mistake you display an appropriate reaction: dismay, which is usually accompanied by an exclamation; an expression of your disappointment that things haven’t turned out the way you hoped or planned; some comfort that this is not the end of the world; an immediate solution to the problem and a plan to avoid similar mistakes in the future.

An example would be forgetting about the eggs you were boiling and coming back to find the eggs cracked and the water boiled away.

“Oh no! I forgot about the eggs! Oh dear, those were the last eggs. They’re completely ruined, what am I going to put in the potato salad now? Well, at least I remembered before the pot got all burnt. I don’t actually think anyone will notice if we don’t have eggs in the salad, will they? I’ll just brighten it up with some more parsley and cut up some ham too. Maybe I’ve just invented a new type of potato salad!”

Psychologist Jenny Perkel, author of Babies in Mind, says, “Failure is inevitable, so what becomes important is how parents help their children deal with it. You can’t win at everything, and we all make mistakes. The process of learning from our mistakes is crucial.

"We can help children process their sadness at their own loss of victory," she adds. "This strengthens them as they discover that whether or not they achieve their goals, life goes on and they will continue their lives regardless of whether they pass or fail.

"Perhaps the greatest lesson in failure is that what makes life meaningful should be what we achieve. It should be who we are. A child is not more worthwhile if she is a success at something. That’s the challenge of failure: not to take it as a reflection of an unworthy self.”

Martie suggests you also examine your reaction to your child’s failures and successes. Are your reactions exaggerated, and do you express yourself in words or in body language? Do you only react to the failures and not the successes? Do you only see the final result and lose sight of all the effort your child put in to make something work? Do you encourage your child to keep quiet about her failures to her friends? Do you make comparisons between your child and others you perceive as “more successful”? If your child doesn’t meet your expectations, do you punish her?

In her book, Raising Children Who Think for Themselves, Dr Elisa Medhus says, “Unless we teach our children how to embrace mistakes and defeats, our self-confident little dynamo may learn to fear ridicule and reprimand. Eventually, she may even rely on outside evaluation to assess her own performance, measure her self-worth, and shape her future choices.”

While “failure” has a negative ring to it, it only becomes negative if it becomes a full stop. When we teach children that failure is necessary for success to happen, we are not only encouraging them to keep trying, but giving them a far more realistic picture of the way the world works.

How to manage your child’s failures

  • Don’t minimise your child’s distress, acknowledge it.
  • Don’t patronise your child. Be honest.
  • Don’t draw attention to what you perceive as her failures.
  • Never compare her to other children. If she compares herself to other children, point out that there are things she does really well that others can’t. Make sure she knows that everyone has unique abilities and talents.
  • Draw attention to your child’s attempts, as well as her successes.
  • Concentrate on her strong points and good traits and stress these. “Fear of failure will dissipate as self-esteem improves,” says Martie.
  • Involve your child in analysing the cause of the failure: did she approach the task wrongly? Would another approach have been better? What can she do in future to gain better results?
  • Encourage your child. Persuade her to try again and again. Remind her of fantastic failures – like the Post-It story, or the story of JK Rowling, the hugely successful author of Harry Potter who lost almost everything before her success, and who told Harvard graduates: “You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case you fail by default.”
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