How to Teach Your Kids to Learn From Failure

Boy playing with building blocks

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No parent likes to see his or her child fail. Some of the most gut-wrenching times in parenting are from helplessly watching a child misspell a word during a spelling bee, missing the cut for select soccer, or not being chosen for the coveted role in a performance. A "sense of failure" can also occur in the very young as well, in the sense of not being picked by a friend to sit together at lunch, not getting to be the line leader, or just not "quite fitting in."

Failure, however, can be transformed into a learning experience that actually improves your child's ability to succeed in the future. As Henry Ford once said, "Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently."

Although it is a natural part of living, failure can produce painful feelings such as anger, sadness, frustration, or low self-esteem in a child or adult. How your child experiences these emotions may be based on his age and maturity; he can, however, be taught to recognize and deal with those feelings in a positive way.

Our children see how we accept or deal with failure and that influences their own response. If we get violently angry when passed over for a promotion that we really wanted or get upset at a child's teacher or instructor because of an action (or inaction), they may model that behavior when faced with their own failures.

What Can Your Child Learn From Failure?

When those first few steps are rewarded with his mother’s expressions of joy and a hug, for example, a toddler learns to set a goal—to repeat that activity that made his mother so happy so that he’ll get the same pleasant response. Encouragement and praise are powerful tools and effective for all ages.

Children can also learn more about problem-solving through failure. Parents should help them evaluate what went wrong and how they can prevent it from occurring again. If the child is old enough, ask her why she thinks she failed the test or didn't catch the ball. Her insight into the problem may surprise you.

Through trying and failing, then trying again and succeeding, our kids learn about patience, perseverance, and the feeling of pride in their accomplishments.

Turn Your Child's Failure Into a Lesson in Success

  • Help your child identify the emotions she feels and express those in an acceptable way. When your child is not successful, whether in the classroom or on the ball field, parents (or any adult caregiver for that matter) should be available to help them work through the emotions.
  • Give him an opportunity to talk about why he thinks things didn't go the way he wanted or expected them to go. Even youngsters can express their feelings, and one of the best things a parent can do is listen. Your child might even provide some insight into what happened that you were not aware of.
  • Provide age-appropriate activities that match your child's interests and skills. Too often, parents lose their way in expecting too much of a child at too young of an age. It really is okay if your child can't do a toe-touch in first grade or is unable to hit the ball off a tee at age 4. Relax!
  • Let your child know that winning isn't the most important thing. Give as much praise for his effort and his attitude as you do for a winning outcome.
  • Talk to your child about his strengths—the things that you observe as his positive traits. Conversations such as this can help build self-esteem in even a very young child.
  • Keep your expectations for your child reasonable and realistic. Don't expect your eight-year-old to master a piano piece by Beethoven in two days, just because her sister can.
  • Remember that your child watches how you respond to failures in your own life. It's okay to share your disappointment and important to show them how you learn from the experience.
  • Let your child know that you love him, win or lose. A big bear hug and a word of encouragement can ease the pain felt when he fails a test or falls down when learning how to ride his bike.

Remember, we all fail at one time or another. Children can be taught to view failure as an opportunity if we show them how to learn from their mistakes and not be afraid to try again.

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