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By Melissa Hood of The Parent Practice.
Published in Familes South West, June 2012
It is a certainty that we all experience failure from time to time and therefore need to be able to cope with it.There are (at least) two ways of responding to failure: one is to be beaten down by it and to feel hopeless and discouraged and perhaps give up; the other is to accept that this time things didn’t go so well and determine to keep trying until you do better.
Edison found many ways not to invent the light bulb before he discovered the way that worked. “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work…”
How do we respond to failure?
Perhaps education systems and modern methods of parenting don’t equip our children well for responding to failure positively.
Across the world education systems with their interest in standardising and measuring have put much emphasis on tests, results, scores and achievements with the result that sometimes there has been not enough attention paid to the process of learning, creating happy, creative and thoughtful problem solvers. So much attention has been paid to achievements that to fail is no longer an option.
Parents have praised their children for doing well. The focus remains on results rather than on creative thinking or new tactics tried. This creates a lot of pressure for kids – they know that winning is what counts and it makes it hard for them to fail.
This creates a culture of risk adversity in academics, sport and the arts and pits children against each other rather than encouraging collaboration – who dares to fail or even to take another path if it is so important to win and there is a set way to do it?
Parents can influence matters
• What we pay attention to and how we talk about success and failure. If we pay attention only to achievements children learn results-based success is all that counts.
• When they do not achieve the result hoped for are our children not worthwhile? When your daughter comes home from a netball match don’t let your first question be ‘did you win?’, but ‘Did you enjoy the game? Did you play your best? Were you able to set up some goals? How did the team play together?
• Giving meaningful and descriptive praise for effort, strategies, attitudes and small improvements, rather than results, to develop a growth mindset in children. “You kept on trying with these sums even though you didn’t find it easy. That’s persevering. Your efforts have paid off – five out of six are correct.”
• Looking behind children’s behaviour and acknowledging their emotions to help them manage their feelings. Children who develop emotional intelligence are more resilient and pick themselves up again after set backs.
• Encouraging independence, especially in thinking, to build self trust. Invite and listen to kids’ ideas. “I know we did too much for our youngest son around his A levels because we felt it was so important that he get the grades he needed for the next step in his education. When we do too much of his thinking/planning/ organising he doesn’t do it himself.” Mother of 18 year old.
• Modelling how to handle failure well.
• When you get something wrong don’t beat yourself up about it but acknowledge the mistake and why it was a mistake.
• Take steps to remedy it - make amends.
• Articulate what you are learning, show that you are not diminished by your failures but can profit from them.
Example: “This morning when we were getting ready for school I yelled at you guys. We were in such a hurry and I didn’t think you were being very helpful. It’s not a good idea for me to yell at you as it doesn’t make you feel good,… or me, and it doesn’t make things go any faster.
I’m sorry. I thought about it afterwards when I was calm and realised that it was because we were in a hurry and I didn’t want to be late that I shouted. Tomorrow I am going to make sure we get started earlier and I’m going to see what I can do tonight so that there’s less to do in the morning."
• Responding encouragingly to their mistakes around school work or music practice or sport as follows: Find something positive to comment on first. Make sure you’re acknowledging good qualities or behavioural traits such as commitment and creativity. Then ask them to find something to improve, routinely.
It is a difficult task for parents but we need to allow our children to have an unpressured childhood not just for the sake of their present happiness but also to create a future generation of people who can think and are willing to embrace new ideas.