First Mondays

By The Institute for Child Development and Family Relations, Cal State San Bernardino

One of the Greatest Gifts You Can Give Your Child: The Gift of Failure

on January 3, 2017

Several months back I was reading the In Your Words column in my Real Simple magazine in which a question is posed to the readers. The question that month was, “What is the greatest gift you can give your children?” My immediate thought was, “Let them fail!”

I recognize that this idea may sound irrational as we are all working hard to support our children in achieving and being successful. Back when I was parenting my two, then young, childrimgresen, I would have never thought about consciously letting them fail. On the contrary, I did my best to provide an environment in which they experienced success and where achievements were praised; whether it was report cards and earned honors decorating the fridge or art projects and team ribbons proudly displayed in their rooms. My belief was that the experience of success and the praise for, it would build in them a positive, confident, sense of self that would form the foundation for future success. Well, as the saying goes, I had all my eggs in one basket.

It was not until years later, as a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist witnessing adolescents struggling with anxiety and depression often linked to perfectionism, that I recognized how woefully our society neglects the powerful lessons learned when a child experiences failure. In no way am I saying children’s successes should not be celebrated; On the contrary, we know this serves to positively reinforce children’s efforts by showing them that they and their efforts are valued. What I am saying is that there are a whole other set of lessons learned when a parent allows their child to hit the proverbial wall.

The information children learn through failing can prepare them to handle life’s disappointments. When a child fails at a task an opening is created to practice working through their anxiety as they begin to learn how to regulate negative emotions. A child images-1who makes a wrong choice and is faced with uncomfortable consequences, learns to evaluate his judgement and has the opportunity to practice problem solving. A child confronted with vulnerability, elicited by realizing they are not perfect, learns that being fallible is what it means to be human, thus, instilling the beginnings of self-acceptance. These are the skills that contribute to the development of resilience; a character trait that has been identified as a foundational piece to psychological well-being and success.

Resilience is developed through the experiences of being knocked down and finding the ability to get up and move forward again. If we allow our children to be exposed to age appropriate challenges, mistakes, and stressors, they then have the opportunity to work on acquiring invaluable coping skills. For example, young children who choose not to eat their dinners, with the consequence of not having dessert, often fall into emotional distress especially at seeing siblings relishing an after dinner treat. Instead of taking away the child’s discomfort, a parent, without shaming the child by saying “well I told you so” or “you should have eaten”, can respond by normalizing their child’s distress. For example, “I know you are sad about not having ice cream, I would feel the same. Tomorrow you will have another chance.” This gives the child the opportunity to figure out how to tolerate disappointment, how to emotionally regulate, and how to problem solve, thus, avoiding this situation the next night.

A child who forgets her homework and is emotionally distressed, wanting mom or dad to bring the homework to school or write a letter the next day to the teacher, has the opportunity to tolerate the discomfort, to take responsibility, and to begin to work through the dilemma. A parent can assist this child without shame by explaining that we all forget sometimes, assisting the child in the problem solving steps to make it easier for i17531907homework to get into the backpack, and providing the opportunity to explore what may be going on that prevents the child from getting homework done and turned in
. An adolescent who does not get that coveted varsity spot or a seat in an Advanced Placement class has the tremendous opportunity to see themselves as human, to evaluate their misperceived overgeneralizations of the impact of such on their life, and to learn how to rationally reappraise the situation.

As parents we need to be curious about our desire to provide our children with a stress-free upbringing. We need to question our own ability to tolerate discomfort and how well we deal with it. Often it is our own anxiety that leads us to over-protect our children so that we may protect ourselves from the distress of watching our children in discomfort. Controlling our child’s environment to limit failure is often a reflection of parents’ difficulty in managing their own emotions and feelings of vulnerability. Without letting our children sit with, and work through their difficulties, we pass onto them our own anxiety-prone personalities.

Children who have the repeated opportunities to work on developing resilience become adolescents and adults who are able to contend with, and not become overwhelmed by, the thexperience of defeat. The adaptive skills acquired can create a sense of self efficacy, a perceived sense of control, and a feeling of optimism. These become the resources that allow us human beings to cope with challenges, function under stress, and work through adversity.

In hindsight, I realize that the non-verbal message conveyed by my hyper-focus on my children’s successes, emphasized to them that it was success itself, versus the trying, that mattered. I wish our refrigerator door and my kids’ bedroom walls would have also had 4th place ribbons and not so stellar report cards that honored their experiences of disappointment and the valued lessons learned from them.

About the Author:

Dianne Foss has a Masters Degree in Clinical Counseling Psychology and is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist (L.M.F.T.)

She is currently a tenure-track faculty member at CSUSB working in the Counseling and Psychological Services clinic as a therapist providing psychotherapy to students and supervision to Doctoral and Master level practicum students working in the clinic.

She has taught 4 years at San Bernardino Valley College followed by 7 years at CSUSB teaching courses on parenting and family systems, history of psychology, adult and childhood psychopathology, and psychotherapy theories and practice.

She is married with two children ages 36 and 34 and blessed with four grandchildren.

References:

Flett, G. & Hewitt, P. (2014). A Proposed Framework for Preventing Perfectionism and Promoting Resilience and Mental Health Among Vulnerable Children and Adolescents. Psychology in the Schools. 51(9), 899-912.

Ginsburg, K. (2014). Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots and Wings, 3rd Edition. Elk Grove , Illinois: American Academy of Pediatrics.

Niehues, A., Bundy, A., Broom, A., & Tranter, P. (2013). Perceptions of Risk and the Influences on Children’s Everyday Activities. Journal of Child and Family Studies. 24(3) 809-820.

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