“I can’t do this, mommy; it’s too hard!” Our children can struggle with accepting failure, making them feel frustrated, sad, and ashamed, or even denting their self-esteem. Many children experience big emotions or may even start to avoid things when facing challenges and new scenarios because they want to protect themselves from the pain of failing.1 It’s okay to fail; we learn by failing. It’s a necessary component of success because learning from our biggest mistakes can teach us courage, problem-solving skills, strength, and wisdom in ways success can’t.2 There are amazing opportunities for children and their growth when they understand it’s okay to fail.
Why Is Learning by Failing Important?
We learn by failing. If we can support our children and help them learn how to deal with failure, they will be better equipped to pick themselves back up and try again. When we fail, we can use that experience to help us in the future. We grow and increase our knowledge, experience, and resilience. We also learn the value of hard work and appreciate the benefits when we do succeed. And it helps us develop compassion and humility.2,3 I’m sure you would agree that these are all wonderful traits we want to instill in our children!
Why Rescuing Children Does More Harm Than Good
Many parents do everything they can to shield their children from making mistakes or failing. It’s normal and natural if you want to protect your little one from sadness, disappointment, heartbreak, and distress. However, this act of protection can rob our children of the chance to learn by failing. When we jump in and do things for our children (under the guise of “helping” them”), we accidentally tell them that we don’t believe they can do it or that we are better than them. This, in turn, can negatively impact their well-being and self-confidence.4 Of course, this isn’t the intention of most parents, but it can be an unintended consequence.
By rescuing our children from failure, we also set them up to fail. They will fail when they are grown-ups, and we are no longer around to swoop in. I don’t say that to be mean; it’s true. Eventually, they will be passed over for a job or an award, make a mistake, or lose out on something they wanted. If they don’t learn by failing in their early years, they won’t have the skills later to persist, learn how to overcome problems that get in their way, and ultimately be independent or capable of managing the challenges that life throws at us all.2,4 As the old saying goes, “Sometimes you need to be cruel to be kind,” and letting our kids fail is one of these times.
How To Talk to Your Child About Learning By Failing
Although allowing our children the space to make mistakes and fail is essential, it’s just as important to equip them with the right skills and support them after they fail. This way, they can make the most of failure, and it will become an opportunity to grow instead. Here’s how to help your child navigate failure:
1. Teach Them a Growth Mindset
We can teach our children to learn from their mistakes by helping them develop a growth mindset. This is a frame of mind in which they see defeat or failure as something that happens for them, not to them. Challenges, obstacles, and disappointment are welcomed and seen as opportunities for learning and growth rather than defeat.5 A growth mindset empowers children and changes how they see and respond to failure.
You can help them learn by failing by having conversations after a challenge or mistake. Identify what went wrong, but also how they could fix it. Focus on their strengths and how they could use or apply them to find a solution. For example, you could say, “I know it’s frustrating that your blocks fell. Why do you think they fell over? I wonder if they weren’t stacked neatly, so they toppled. What can we do next time?”
2. Let Them Experience Failing
Yep. Just don’t swoop in (as tough as that might feel). If we allow small failures now, they will have the skills to deal with bigger failures later. I’m not talking about situations relating to their or others’ safety, but simple things like tying their shoelaces or making themselves a snack. Sure, they might not do it perfectly the first time, but they will learn and, more importantly, increase their self-esteem and feel good about themselves when they learn by failing that they can handle things.
3. Don’t Rush Their Feelings About Failing
If you rush in to help, it may be because you want to protect your child from distress. I know it doesn’t feel okay, but I promise it is okay for your child to experience uncomfortable feelings. Sometimes, fear of failure is about fear of the emotions accompanying failure. So, let them be uncomfortable as they learn by failing. I’m not saying don’t offer comfort, but don’t rush to fix things for your child. You can try to problem-solve, help them identify some tools for self-regulation, or offer a cuddle. But don’t minimize their experience or rush them through it. We don’t want our children to be fearful of their emotions; they need to experience them to know they can handle them and that feelings won’t last forever.
4. Be Open About People Who Learn By Failing
Share times when you failed and overcame the issue or challenge. Find books on famous people who have failed — some scientists made mistakes that led to world-changing discoveries, and authors kept persisting and finally sold chart-topping books. Watch TV shows or read books and identify failures or challenges and how they overcame things. It will help your child develop a growth mindset about failure and normalize that everyone makes mistakes.
There is no easy path or process to help our kids overcome and learn by failing. It does mean some inevitable upset or heartache. But as parents, we need to help our children navigate ways of handling failure, as it’s the only way they will develop the mindset and resiliency needed to turn a mistake or failure into an opportunity. We must help our children recognize failure as a stepping stone to success and something to appreciate rather than avoid.