How to Teach Your Kids to Learn From Failure

Boy playing with building blocks

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No parent likes to see their child fail. It can be heartbreaking for parents to helplessly watch a child misspell a word during a spelling bee, miss the cut for select soccer, forget to bring their homework to school, or not get chosen for the coveted role in a performance.

Young kids may also feel a sense of failure if they're not picked by a friend to sit together at lunch, not called on in class, or just not "fitting in" at school. Getting poor grades, being picked on, or not performing well in front of others (such as in sports or public speaking) are other common areas where kids can perceive they've failed.

Overview

Naturally, many parents' first impulse is to shield their child from these unpleasant experiences. But that's usually not in your child's best interests. Instead, failure 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 their age and maturity. However, they can be taught to recognize and deal with those feelings in a positive way—and channel them toward future success.

Positive Responses to Failure

Children see how their parents accept or deal with failure, and this influences their own response. This can be a good or bad thing.

If we get violently angry when passed over for a promotion that we really wanted or get upset at a child's teacher for giving a bad grade, the child may model that behavior when faced with their own failures. On the other hand, if we take the failure in stride and use it as an opportunity for growth and self-improvement, the child will learn a better lesson.

When a child experiences a 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 them why they think they failed the test or didn't catch the ball. Their insight into the problem may surprise you.

Children can learn about problem-solving through failure.

Reframing failure as an opportunity to assess and plan for better outcomes can ease the sting of defeat and build resiliency while also prepping them to do better next time. Through trying and failing, then trying again and succeeding, our kids learn about patience, perseverance, and the feeling of pride in their accomplishments.

Encouragement and praise are powerful tools we can use to shape the positive response we want to see.

From Failure to Success

Use the below strategies to help your child turn failures into lessons and motivation for future success.

Talk About Their Feelings

Help your child identify the emotions they feel and express them in an acceptable way. When your child is not successful, whether in the classroom or on the soccer field, parents (or any adult caregiver) should be available to help them work through the emotions.

Talk About What Happened

Give them an opportunity to talk about why they think things didn't go the way they 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 will likely even provide some insight into what happened that you were not aware of.

Model Handling Failure Gracefully

Remember that your child watches how you respond to failures in your own life. It's okay to share your disappointment, and it's important to show them how you learn from these experiences.

Lay Off the Pressure

Provide age-appropriate activities and goals 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. Relax and lay off the pressure to master skills early and excel at everything. 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.

See Them as Their Own Person

Keep your expectations for your child reasonable, realistic, and flexible. Avoid comparing them with other kids, particularly their relatives and friends. Don't expect your eight-year-old to master a piano piece by Beethoven in two days, just because their sibling can. And just because some kindergarteners are reading chapter books, it doesn't mean your child is "behind" if they're still working on the alphabet.

Focus on Doing Rather Than Achieving

Let your child know that winning isn't the most important thing. Give as much praise for their effort and attitude as you do for a winning outcome. Prioritize the journey, enthusiasm and trying, and what they learn along the way.

Nurture Your Child's Superpowers

Talk to your child about their strengths—the things that you observe as their positive traits. Notice the things that make them unique. Let them see that there are many winning traits.

These qualities don't need to have anything to do with being the best or winning, either. For example, they may not have won the race, but they did congratulate the winner, cheer the loudest for the other athletes, thank their coach, pick up trash left along the track, and/or shave two seconds off their personal best. Conversations such as this can help build self-esteem and perspective in even a very young child.

Think About Next Time

Remember, we all fail at one time or another. Talk to your child about accepting that and also the value in finding the good in any situation. Ask them to reflect on their "failure" experience: What did they enjoy, what didn't they like, what did they learn, and what would they do differently?

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—and fail— again. Brainstorm strategies together for a better outcome next time or decide they are actually happy with how things turned out, after all.

A Word From Verywell

Love without strings. Let your child know that you value them, win or lose. A big bear hug and a word of encouragement can ease the pain felt when they fail a test or fall down when learning how to ride their bike. The key is to get back up and try again—and even better, to be able to hold their head high and laugh along with the struggles. Their eventual victories will taste that much sweeter.

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