Let’s talk about the “F” word… failure! While it’s natural as parents and educators to want to protect our children, allowing them to experience failure is an important stage in learning and cultivating a growth mindset. Unless you’re free-solo climbing El Capitan, failing is rarely life-ending. So, say goodbye to “helicopter” or “lawn mower” parenting, and hello to a golden age of growth!
The Benefits of Failing
We are programed to see failure as scary and embarrassing. As adults, we feel a child’s failure reflects directly on us. But when we look past the stigma, we can see that failure is a vital learning step. Following a growth mindset, it can lead to resiliency, critical thinking, coping skills, gumption, and grit. Here are some tips to help you change your view on failure and embrace it in your learning journey.
A Good Place to Start
It’s important to choose a developmentally appropriate challenge for your child when supporting them in working through potential failures. In order for your child to be able to take ownership in processing and problem solving past a failure, they need to be able to fully understand the task at hand. There are many developmental milestone resources available (such as here and here), but you as a parent or educator will know what fits your child best. Experiencing failure can be disappointing, so start with a low-stakes task to ease them into the inevitable experience of failure.
Choose your Words
The language you choose to use will alter your outlook on a topic. One helpful word to include in your vocabulary when following a growth mindset is “yet”. Suddenly, “I can’t do it!” becomes “I can’t do it, yet.” The small but mighty “yet” opens the door between end-of-the-road failure and hard-earned success. Many also choose to rename failure all together, and replace it with words such as practicing, trying, discovering, or learning.
Neuro for Kids
If a child is disappointed when they fail to do something an adult or older child does, remind them that their brain is still growing! Remember the best way to strengthen your brain is not by cutting straight to the correct answers, but by problem solving your way there. When explaining the brain to children, use language or analogies that they can appreciate, like kernels popping over time in a bag of popcorn.
Making Failure Less Scary
Normalizing failure will help to combat those innate feeling of fear that often come along with it. I encourage you to let children see you fail, so that they understand they are not alone. Problem solving aloud in front of your children will help to set an example of critical thinking and resilience. Saying, “I’m okay!” or laughing off a little failure can leave big impressions for a child. It can also be fun to explore “famous failures,” such as the time Michael Jordan didn’t make the varsity basketball team or the moment when potato chips were created. It can even be helpful to celebrate mistakes, offering a high five and a triumphant “Wahoo! You’re learning!”
Having a Failure vs. Being a Failure
Experiencing a failure does not make you a failure. Help your children to understand that failing is a feeling that is natural and making a mistake is contextual. When sorting through an experienced failure, work as a team with your child while giving them ownership and validating the feelings of frustration and sadness that come with failing. The mindfulness practice of R.A.I.N. is a helpful tool when addressing perceived deficiency and supporting non-identification with passing feelings.
Experiencing failures in life is inevitable. Helping our children to de-stigmatize failure and reframe it as a vital step in the learning process promotes resiliency, gumption, and an overall growth mindset. So, go ahead, feel free to fail!
Allison Duggan is a practicing occupational therapist in the DMV area with an expertise in pediatrics. She believes in a strong rapport and follows a strengths-based approach to promote independence and a growth mindset, while never forgetting the value of a shared laugh. Off the clock, you’ll find her and her dog spending time with family and friends on a trail, in the sand, or watching the game. She loves to create, from paper flowers to refinished furniture, and is always game for game night.
A note from ThinkFun
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