Let’s talk about failure. For a good part of my life, I was petrified of failing. I was committed to achieving 100% perfection in everything I did. I became entirely defined by the quest for A+ grades and superficial success and had no capacity whatsoever to handle failure. This, of course, is an unsustainable and unhealthy way to live.
It wasn’t until my early twenties when I became an entrepreneur — where you’re confronted at every turn with setbacks, rejections, and missteps — that I developed a much healthier relationship with failure. I had to. In my 30 years at Melissa & Doug, I’ve created close to 10,000 products. I’d estimate that about half of those would be considered failures. (You can get a glimpse of just one of my many failures in this video here.) Over the years, I have learned firsthand that in order to truly be successful, we need to take risks, fail A LOT, and learn from those experiences.
From the moment we are born, I believe we are wired to take risks, fail, and try again. Think of babies learning to walk, falling down, and getting back up again. In fact, childhood is supposed to be all about trying, sometimes succeeding, often failing, and always learning. It’s called play. The very definition of play is to take risks, test out countless activities and personas, reject the ones that don’t feel quite right and tweak and hone the others to ultimately discover who we are at our core, what lights us up.
But at some point, many of us become much less comfortable with the idea of failure. We focus on performance and the end result, on acquiring skills and engaging in adult-led activities that are judged, graded, and ranked. We lose sight of the valuable learning that grows out of all the trying — the exploration and the discovery.
I wish as a child I had learned to become more comfortable with failure. It would have saved a lot of heartache. Here are a few tips on how we can help our kids experience failure as a natural part of the path to success:
5 Ways We Can Teach Kids to Embrace Failure
1. Step Back and Hover Less
As a recovering helicopter mom, I know how hard it can be to stop the hovering and let our kids experience occasional discomfort, disappointment, or even heartbreak. For many years, my instinct was to rush in, solve problems, and save my children from the sting of rejection. I eventually realized my parenting style was preventing my children from becoming independent. I now try to make a conscious effort to not swoop in. We need to let kids get the skinned knee, resolve their own conflicts with friends, and develop the grit and resilience they will need to bounce back when life knocks them down. Start small: If you’re usually right on top of your child at the playground, move to a nearby bench. Experiment with letting your older child play in the backyard alone without your direct supervision. Let the leash out to allow your child to explore the neighborhood with agreed-upon limits. The Let Grow website has helpful reality checks that aim to dispel some of the fears parents often have these days about their children’s safety.
2. Share Your Setbacks
One way we can help our kids get more comfortable with failure is to share our own setbacks, how we handled them, and what we learned from them. Kids are always watching us as parents and taking cues from us. Share a story from your work life or social life that could be viewed as a failure on your part. Talk about how you felt, what you learned, and how you would handle it when you face a similar situation in the future. If you make a mistake in front of your child, acknowledge it with a script that doesn’t beat yourself up and also looks forward to the next time: “Oh, man, this recipe was a total fail! I didn’t have oil so I tried substituting applesauce and it just doesn’t taste right to me. Next time, I’ll take more care to make sure I have all the ingredients the recipe calls for on hand. And I’ll make a note on my recipe card that says ‘no substitutions’ so I remember!”
3. Turn Failures into an Exercise in Problem Solving
When your kids do inevitably experience a failure, empathize with them and use it as a teachable moment. Brainstorm on ideas for how the situation could be handled differently next time. Be open to their ideas and encourage them to come up with a plethora of possibilities. (Ask, “What else could you do?”) This helps promote creative thinking. Children who are practiced in coming up with various responses to different situations are going to have more tools at their disposal in future situations.
4. Praise the Effort not the Intelligence
Psychologists often talk about the difference between having a fixed versus a growth mindset. People with fixed mindsets view their abilities as innate and unchangeable. They either are smart or not-so-smart. People with growth mindsets believe their intelligence can improve over time with experience. They believe their effort has an effect on their success. In a study of 400 fifth-grade students who were asked to complete a puzzle, Carol Dweck, Ph.D., gave one group praise for intelligence (“You must be smart at this!”) and the other praise for effort (“You must have worked really hard!”). Then the groups were given difficult puzzles they could not complete. After that failure, easy puzzles were given to complete. The group that was told they were smart did 20% worse than on their original task. The “effort” group did 30 percent better. We can communicate to our kids that one way to deal with failure is to work harder!
5. Try New Things and Take Reasonable Risks
Some kids shy away from trying new things for fear they won’t be good at it. Reframe their thinking to focus on the experience and less on the performance/outcome. Make sure they know the expectations are to have fun, not necessarily be the best. Also, let kids see you trying new activities, new challenges, even new foods.
I would love for us as a society to develop a new definition for failure. What if we viewed the failed relationships, job mistakes, social gaffes, creative flops, parenting missteps, and all other forms of failure as profound insights necessary to learn who we truly are and position us on the path to finding our purpose and passion? What if we were told that we must fail in order to succeed? Well I am here to do just that! I am here to implore you and your kids to take risks, stick your neck out, fall flat on your face, and get right back up, moving forward with new self-awareness and wisdom!