Are We Failing Our Kids When They Fail?

Do you remember back in the day when going to school was a thing? One day after school, you notice that your middle schooler is moping around the house looking down. Despondent, even. You strike up a conversation to see what is going on. You discover that your child got a D on the final project in science and will more than likely fail science for the grading period because of this low grade.

Ahhhh. You remember that project: the project that you attempted to help your child think through six weeks prior when it was assigned. You were told, “I got this, don’t worry.” Miraculously, they finished it in two days. You knew this wouldn’t end well.

You might be mulling over…should I have intervened midway through the six weeks and demanded to see some progress on this science project? Perhaps, I could email the teacher to say that we have been really busy as a family and could the teacher be a little lenient with the grade. After all, getting an “D” could have serious consequences. Or should I just let the natural consequences of the “D” be what they are? Am I failing my child if I allow them to fail?

This issue can be a rocky road to reconcile. Let’s think our way through this together.

Taking Ourselves Out of The Mix

We need to see our child’s failure as just that: their failure. It is not a reflection on our parenting skills. This can be hard to sit with. We need to allow ourselves to feel and be comfortable with our own discomfort at seeing them fail. We can be tempted to swoop in and to rescue our children to alleviate our own pain or embarrassment.

Jessica Lahey, author of the book, The Gift of Failure, says that we often live with the myth that we can never do enough or be enough for our children. This can also be true of other caregivers, teachers or counselors. We can compare ourselves to others or live from a place of fear that we will never be good enough. This thinking can lead us to jumping in to fix a situation to make us feel better and not necessarily to act in the best interest of the child. Lahey encourages us to ask ourselves, “How would I parent/counsel/teach, if I were not afraid?”

What do we want our children to learn from the failure?

As a therapist, I love the term “productive failing.” Diane Tavenner, co-founder of Summit Public Schools and a mom, says there should be two important outcomes from a failure. First, did the person who failed learn something from the situation? We may need to help kids reflect. What part did they play in the failure? What could they have done differently? How do they feel about the outcome? What will they do differently next time?

Next, in productive failing, the failure doesn’t permanently close future doors. Tavenner uses low-risk activities with her son, like losing at his video games, to practice the art of failing. Caregivers need to do a delicate dance of being available and giving guidance. Yet, we don’t want to offer so much guidance that the child steps back and refuses to engage in a difficult situation. We help them navigate the transitions and find the words to express how they feel and what they need.

What we are really doing is helping them to practice skills that they will need over the course of their lives. We want to help our children to build up what James Lehman, MSW, calls this “a tolerance to discomfort.” We know they will experience discomfort from simple situations of having to wait their turn or the more complex situations like not getting into a college at the top of their short list.

What Can We Do to Help Kids with Failure?

One thing we can do is follow Tavenner’s example and let our children fail in small ways without intervening. We can use these times as learning opportunities. We get kids to see that failure does not have to be so devastating.

Sara Blakely, billionaire founder of Spanx, said she learned to normalize failure as a kid. Everyday her lawyer father would ask her, “What did you fail at today?” She recounts that he would almost seem disappointed, if she didn’t have anything to share. She learned early on not to fear failure.

Tavenner also suggests that we offer “feedback and guidance to our kids, rather than answers.” We can involve ourselves in a situation with questions that get kids to reason and think their way through, without offering advice. For instance, in this time of online learning for many of us, we might ask our children what their plan is for making progress with their assignments. Another question might be: What goals do they have for being successful as an online learner?

We can also work on ourselves and learn to manage our worry. We can limit our anxiety after our child does not pass one quiz and not see a future of them failing out of school. Instead we can ask our child to determine the behaviors that led to their poor performance on a quiz. Next we can help them to reflect on positive next steps that will lead to success the next time around. We are teaching our children to be accountable for their actions which can only serve them as they grow.

In most situations, our children’s failures are not the end of the world. We can do them and ourselves a great service by keeping the failure in perspective and looking at the lessons that can be learned

Dr. JenI am currently on a mission to empower. Empower women. Empower parents. Empower children. Empower therapists. Over my career, I have built a thriving counseling practice where my staff continues to empower their clients. I specialize in helping parents connect more with their children offering strategies to allow that to happen.

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