To Fail or Not to Fail? Is That Even the Question?

fail blocks

Is it good for your child to fail?

Many experts say yes because failure is a natural part of life. Failure is a common consequence of taking risks. And, if we want kids who bounce back, they need to fail and pick themselves up so they can exercise that resiliency muscle. Furthermore, we know that often growth occurs in after a terrible failure including: feeling personally stronger; strengthening of relationships and a better organization of priorities and philosophy going forward. Finally, failure can build character creating harder working, more empathetic, flexible and creative problem solvers.

It is likely that many of us can relate to this experience of growth after set back. Whether it a failed class, job or relationship, we can point to a difficult time in our lives and reflect on how it changed us for the better.

So fail big and fail often?

Well, mabye not so fast. Other experts point out that failure can have less than desirable, even dire consequences. Psychology tells us that when success is experienced the courage to take on challenges bigger challenges is nurtured. When a child is good at something, that child feels competent and leading to the child to believe in her abilities even more. Therefore, failure interrupts that success-breeds-success model. Furthermore, when failure is experienced the child can lose interest and abandon the activity all together.   Finally, failure in the face of hard work can cause a child to feel anxious, even compulsive.

Again, it is likely most of us can point out times where failure led us to give up, think poorly of ourselves or even caused us to behave neurotically.

So then, maybe we should protect our kids from failure as much as we can?

I think both sets of experts are correct. Failure is important in developing people who are not afraid to take risks and who are resilient. Failure also can be devastating and debilitating.

The key is to isolate the qualities that separate those who handle failure well versus those who do not and develop, ways to strengthen those qualities in our children. Additionally, we need to help children to process their failures.

According to the International Resilience Project, who surveyed almost 600 children and families, the main building blocks for a child to become resilient are:

  1. Social support. Social support includes listening without judgment, emotional support (including helping the child evaluate his or her attitudes, values or feelings as well as challenging those feelings) and tangible support (such as money, gifts or rides).
  2. Educational support. School is a place where children can learn coping mechanisms as well as a sense of self-worth. Teacher and peers can substitute for the absence of support from home.
  3. Extracurricular support. Kids who are connected to an activity or sport are more resilient.
  4. Environmental support. Depending on their gender, children need slightly different environments for the greatest chances of resiliency. For girls the keys are absence of over-protection, emphasis on risk-taking and reliable emotional support. For boys the traits are greater structure and rules, adult supervision, male role models and encouragement of emotional expression.

In short, what it comes down to is this: for children become resilient they need to remain connected to key figures in their lives who are there to give them the support and create the environment that they need. 

So failure is not the magic ingredient. It is the community and the environment that helps a child take risks and learn from failure that is key.

So yes, let your kids fail but don’t let them hang out to dry. Much like a gymnast who falls into a foam pit or on to a crash mat, be there for the children in your life when they take a tumble. Pick them up, dust them off, reassure them that they are going to be okay and help them see how they can do better next time.