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Failure Lessons|12 August 2022

How failure is not your child’s enemy but their best teacher

Written by Pragya Lodha
The Mumbai Program Director & Clinical Psychologist at The MINDS Foundation. Honorary Associate Editor for the Indian Journal of Mental Health with over 100 National and International publications

As parents, we want our children to succeed in every part of their lives. We want them to have good grades, maintain a healthy friend circle, do well in their extracurriculars, and more. Something that many parents fail to consider, however, is that failure is a key part of growing up. The reality is that your child will fail at many things before they succeed – and that is a normal and positive part of the learning process that we, as parents, should be encouraging about. 

Many children learn from the pressures in their environment that failing is a bad thing. They can be scared to try something new because they fear failure or they may give up a hobby because they made some inevitable mistakes. Unfortunately, this mindset limits their growth. In fact, studies show that our brains grow and develop in very important ways when we face failure, but only if we are open to learning from our mistakes. For this reason, it is very important to teach your child that failure is nothing to be ashamed of or afraid of, and actually, each failure they face brings them one step closer to success. 

Here are 9 ways to teach your child that failure isn’t their enemy but their best teacher: 

  1. Develop a growth mindset: Many people will stop trying after failing because they do not believe there is a way to overcome it. However, failure is our best teacher, and people with ‘growth mindsets’ see failure as a good thing, because it means that they are on the right path to improving. People who have growth mindsets thrive on challenges and do not let the experience of failure dampen their efforts to achieve a certain target. 
  1. Praise effort, not rewards: Children pick up on what we praise them for, and very quickly strive to repeat that rewarded behaviour to receive praise again. This means that instead of praising your child for achieving something, like an excellent grade, praise them instead for their effort, as in, all the hours they put in studying diligently for that exam. This will allow your child to see that what matters the most is that they have given their best effort and that they will be supported by you. It also lessens the pressure on your child when the outcome is out of their hands. 
  1. Model healthy failure: The best way to teach your child any lesson is to demonstrate it yourself. Children learn most from the example of people around them, especially their parents. In this case, we recommend showing your child that it is okay to fail by failing in front of them. For example, take up a new hobby with your children, such as painting or any kind of sport. Show your child the struggle and failure you face as you begin exploring this hobby, and maintain a positive attitude throughout it all. They will pick up on your cues, and begin applying the same to their lives. 
  1. Explain the science: Have a sit down with your child and explain to them how failure positively affects the brain, as we mentioned before. Tell them that every time you fail, your brain grows stronger because it learns how mistakes are made, and how to avoid them in the future so that they can succeed later on. This is a fact-based way of reframing failure entirely so that they can always remember that failure makes them stronger. 
  1. Celebrate failure: Failure teaches us a lot, so allow your child to ‘show off’ what they have learned from any failure they have experienced. Some ideas we have to celebrate failure include:
    • Discuss the acronym for failure (First Attempt In Learning)
    • Give your child the time to brag about what they have learned through making mistakes 
    • If your child is younger, try practising giving them a high-five every time they feel they have failed
    • Introduce sharing stories of famous and successful people who have failed many times before succeeding
  2. Monitor the environment: Even though all of these methods will help your child understand that failure is actually a positive step in the learning process, your child will still be exposed to messaging from their schools, teachers, friends, and family that failing is a negative thing. Though you cannot control what other people say, you can always talk to your child directly about the things they hear from other people, and explain that different people have different opinions on failure. If this escalates, and people in your child’s life are pushing unhealthy competition or putting too much pressure on your children, then you may need to step in and explain why this will not be acceptable for you and your child. 

  3. Validate their feelings. Many children innately struggle with failure and feel disappointed when they do not achieve the level that they anticipate. Instead of disregarding their feelings and telling them not to be upset about failing, empathize with their feelings. Disregarding their feelings will lead to suppression of emotion, which is unhealthy. Tell them that it is okay to be disappointed sometimes, but that overall failure is a good thing, and they should understand that they are valuable and loved regardless of what they achieve in life. 

  4. Teach mindfulness: Sometimes, your child will really, really want to achieve something, such as winning a sport or receiving an award, but despite their best efforts, they won’t be able to achieve it. This means that sometimes failure will be emotionally overwhelming and difficult for your child. It is important to teach them how to accept and process their emotions when this is the case. We recommend teaching your child basic mindfulness skills, such as the ‘RAIN’ technique, to accept difficult news. First, they have to recognize their emotions, then they accept what the reality of the situation is, then they will investigate why they feel so strongly, and finally they will non-identify with the situation, meaning they will understand that their emotions do not define them. 

  5. Let them take responsibility: Many parents struggle with seeing their children struggle with the disappointment that follows failure. In order to make their child feel better, they may pressure a teacher to change their child’s grade or do homework for their child so they perform better. Unfortunately, this teaches your child that failure is shameful and that they do not have to face the consequences of their actions. Failure is a life lesson all children need to cope with, so instead, let your child experience their failure while providing love and support. This will result in a healthier, well-adjusted child who is equipped to face challenges throughout their life.

The views expressed are that of the expert alone.

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