Your oldest child tried out for the junior high basketball team and didn’t make it. Your middle child wanted a part in their school play but wasn’t chosen. Your youngest child failed an important math test. What is your response when a child goes through disappointments and failures? Perhaps the better question is: What can you teach your children through the inevitable disappointments and failures of life?
Talk about it. When the time is right, it pays to face disappointments and failures head-on. A ‘here is what you wanted, but this is the reality’ kind of talk. Sometimes there will be tangled feelings when a disappointment comes such as blaming others for the situation or expressing self-deprecations such as, “I can’t do anything right.” It’s helpful for your child to vent frustration when the feelings are raw and painful, but then guide the discussion to a more positive place.
It hurts. Allow some time to explore the sadness and pain of a big disappointment or a performance blunder. Sometimes there is a period of ‘mourning the loss’ when your child had their heart set on a certain task or role and failed to achieve it. If the failure was due to a lack of preparation, there will also follow a period of analysis of the situation. What went wrong? Or maybe hard facts must be faced. Your child may never be class president or lead singer in the chorus. Maybe others are more gifted, more talented. What then? Can you be the voice of reason guiding your child to a healthy realization of their unique gifts? No one is good at everything. Where can your child find success? What are realistic goals your child can achieve?
The role of mistakes. Beyond the disappointment of one traumatic life experience looms a much larger truth. Making mistakes is an essential part of learning. Think of your baby learning to walk. How many bumps and falls did it take before they toddled toward you without stumbling? No one thinks of that process as a series of failures. Rather, we realize the child has to practice before attaining success. And that principle can be applied to nearly everything we learn in life. In her book, Allow Your Children to Fail if You Want Them to Succeed, Dr. Avril Beckford says, “Failure is inevitable, so what becomes important is how parents help their children to deal with it.”
Every classroom teacher has students who are afraid to make mistakes; they want to be perfect the first time. But learning doesn’t happen that way. Even top students must learn to try something, check for success, learn from their errors, move on, and try again. Children need to learn to tolerate a level of risk that allows them to try, fail, and try again. This is a learning cycle that applies to nearly every subject area and to every character- building life experience. Most errors are approximations - a student tries something and it’s nearly correct, but not quite. But sometimes a science experiment fails completely. It’s time to go back to the drawing board and make a new hypothesis. But what has the student learned from the failed experiment? That’s the key to accepting failures. Determine what has been learned from the experience. Set a new goal. Move on.
Here are some tips when walking with your child through failure:
• Listen. Allow time to process what has happened and why.
• Be ready to help analyze what went wrong. Talk it through.
• Share anecdotes from your own life. We’ve all been there.
• Make a new plan. Try a new activity, set a new goal, work harder next time.
• Reinforce your absolute approval of your child as a much-loved person apart from any performance of any kind.
You are instrumental in helping your children learn the skills necessary to deal with the disappointments and failures we all experience in life. Choose a positive outlook in life that mistakes, errors, and failures are just one part of learning any new skill; they’re just a link in the chain of achieving success. Your support and positive attitude toward this learning cycle will set the tone for your child’s future successes.
Jan Pierce, M.Ed., is a retired teacher and freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful Pacific Northwest and specializes in parenting and family life topics. Find her at janpierce.net.
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